It is estimated that over 6 million people in the UK and 30 million people in the U.S, predominantly women, suffer from the multiple effects of an imbalance in the gastrointestinal (GI) system.
Our gut is home to approximately 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) microorganisms, a huge number almost beyond human comprehension.
The human gut contains 10 times more bacteria than all the human cells in the entire body, with over 400 known diverse bacterial species; in fact, you could say that we’re more bacteria than human, which sounds strange, but is true.
The gut has many functions including:
- Digestion of foods and conversion into nutrients
- Absorption of nutrients
- The prevention of toxins and pathogens from entering the body
- The manufacture of immune cells, 70% of them
- Preventing allergies
- The manufacture of two thirds of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters)
Over 400 species of bacteria, as well as many species of yeast and other organisms, live in the human GI tract and make up the “gut flora.” These “friendly” bacteria are vital for good digestion and the health of the intestines in general, and mostly have names beginning with “Lactobacillus” or “Bifidobacteria,” which denotes the class of bacteria they belong to.
When the gut flora is in a healthy balance it is called “orthobiosis.
We’ve only recently begun to understand the extent of the gut flora’s role in human health and disease and recent research has shown that the gut flora and the health of the gut in general, play a significant role in a multitude of diseases including both obesity and diabetes.
The gut has been described as the root cause of all disease as Hippocrates noted all those years ago:
“All disease begins in the gut” – Hippocrates, 460BC – 377BC
This illustrates how the gut or the GI tract or the digestive system is often underrated, but plays a huge part in our health. When you are not digesting food properly, all kinds of problems can arise; nutrients may not be ingested leading to low energy levels; your immune system can become compromised, leading to viral and bacterial infections; other bodily systems can be affected from the skin to your nervous system and lastly poor digestion can lead to toxic bacteria infesting your intestinal tract, a condition called gut dysbiosis.
The gut is our second brain
The gut-brain axis denotes the relationship between digestive health and cognitive function, memory, depression, anxiety and other mental and behavioural health issues; it is one of the most important and least recognised factors in human health.
The gut is often referred to as our second brain. There is a constant exchange of chemicals and electrical messages between the two systems; in fact, many scientists often refer to them as one entity, the brain-gut axis. Therefore, what affects the stomach will directly affect the brain and vice versa.
The gut produces at least 40 brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) including 50% of dopamine and 90% of serotonin, two key brain chemicals.
Therefore, a healthy stomach is essential to keep the precise balance of chemicals for optimal mental and physical health.
Healthy gut and toxic removal
There are so many toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis and some of them are easier than others to avoid or remove from your life, but the point is that having a healthy gut will go a long way to removing these toxins from the body.
These include; pesticides, heavy metals (arsenic, lead, mercury) from industrial pollution, chemicals from plastics and the petrochemical industry, cosmetics, hygiene products and household cleaning products to name a few.
What goes wrong?
Not all of the hundreds of species of organisms that make up the gut flora are “friendly”. There are also a number of organisms that don’t provide the body with any benefits, or do so only when their numbers are kept low by competing friendly bacteria. Such microorganisms include coliform bacteria (E.coli, etc.), yeasts/fungus, parasites and bacteroides.
Illness can occur when the amount of friendly bacteria are reduced and the other organisms are able to become the majority. There are a number of factors that can disrupt the balance of organisms in the intestines and lead to overgrowth of the less desirable species, leading to gut dysbiosis, which include changes in the lining of the bowel that increases the permeability of the intestine, resulting in leaky gut syndrome.
What is leaky gut syndrome?
The lining of the intestines is a barrier that normally only allows properly digested fats, proteins, and starches to pass through and enter the bloodstream. When this lining gets bombarded by things like medications (e.g. antibiotics, NSAID’s, birth control pills and immune suppressants), pesticides, environmental toxins, bacterial toxins, certain food intolerances e.g. milk products (lactose and casein) and grains especially gluten grains like wheat including whole grains, the lining loses its integrity.
NB Whole grains are junk foods dressed up with a health halo.
When the lining loses its integrity, the door is open to let in the bacteria, viruses, parasites and even undigested food molecules! These will activate the immune system, triggering the release of inflammatory substances called cytokines and act to weaken the intestinal wall. We refer to this loss of integrity as “the leaky gut syndrome.” The agitated immune system may also become so unstable as to attack your own body, producing autoimmune diseases.
Leaky gut syndrome is associated with many conditions.
How to improve your gut flora for optimum health
A healthy lower intestine should contain at least 85% friendly bacteria and 20 times more beneficial bacteria than cells to maintain a healthy intestinal tract and help fight illness and disease. Below is a list of strategies for enhancing gut health.
- Reduce or even better eliminate sugars and grains, especially wheat from your diet, refined vegetable oils including oils in non-butter spreads and margarines, soft drinks and juices, processed foods, food additives, GMO “foods” and allergenic foods e.g. dairy (lactose and casein), wheat, barley and rye (gluten).Keep alcohol to a minimum and try and make red wine your alcohol of choice since it actually improves gut health in moderation.
- Take steps to manage stress, which destroys your gut flora via the gut-brain axis. Practice meditation and ensure you get adequate sleep, which is actually the best anti-stress strategy ever.
- Play in the dirt. Yes you read that correctly; kids or anyone else who get out into the outdoors or nature will populate their gut with a variety of good bacteria that are found in soil.
- Eating certain foods to feed your gut e.g. greens, vegetable juicing, whey protein, Greek bio yogurt, dark chocolate (85%+ cocoa) including raw cacao and berries will help improve your gut flora along with fermentable fibre foods like bananas, squash, sweet potatoes, yams and other root vegetables, which feed the good gut bacteria.Eat probiotic foods to repopulate your gut; these include bio yogurt, kefir, miso soup, sauerkraut, fermented apple sauce, fermented vegetables, kombucha tea. My favourite is sauerkraut since it is rich in healthy bacteria, both in terms of amounts and types and is cheap and easy to make; you could also supplement.