In attempting to explain the importance of gut flora, I often ask people to imagine themselves as an outside-in planet.
Your digestive tract is densely populated with micro-organisms in a similar way to humans on the face of the earth, though the scale is somewhat different. While there are billions of humans on Planet Earth, there are trillions of bugs inside you – about ten times as many critters as you have cells, all eking out a living on you and from you. And, if you play your cards right, they have plenty to give you in return.
The combined behaviour of your glut flora has a profound effect on your ecosystem, impacting both the daily environment and longer term sustainability of Planet You and, just as we humans are not exactly doing a stellar job of maintaining the external ecosystem, our internal ecosystems are also suffering from a combination of neglect and ignorance. Poor food choices, take-away lifestyles, modern pharmaceuticals, chronic stress, habitual overconsumption and problems with waste disposal are as problematic on the inside as they are on the outside.
We’ve known for a long time that your microbiota (all the organisms in your gut) play a key role in immunity and food assimilation, and we’ve suspected for a decade or so that they may be closely involved with obesity, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Recent technological advances are showing us that they appear to have a role in just about every area of health and wellbeing you can think of: digestion, immunity, detoxification, circulation, communication, energy, structure… the lot. There is so much information emerging on the importance of microbial balance that a blog post can’t begin to convey it.
There’s a great TED talk by Rob Knight that will help you understand the scope and importance of the situation:
There are lots of books appearing about it too, one of the best being 10% Human by Alanna Collen. Research labs all over the world are glued to their microscopes as they study the implications of this growing field of healthcare. Just yesterday a colleague shared an exciting link about research into the microbiome and cancer:
It’s changing our understanding of human health in significant ways. Not least by showing us that 90% of what we consider to be ‘human health’ may actually be mediated by bacteria.
So how does all this affect you? And what can you do about it?
The most important thing to grasp is that whatever you eat, whenever you eat, you are feeding not only yourself but your microbiota. Whatever you choose will feed either the good guys or the bad guys, and that will almost certainly be a critical factor in your health and wellbeing today, tomorrow and even in ten years’ time.
The ‘friendly’ organisms survive for the most part on our leftovers, the food we can’t digest, commonly known as dietary fibre.’Unfriendly’ organisms prefer pure sugar, or partially digested protein fibres; they love to ferment the waste products that build up as a result of slow gut transit time; and they are opportunistic, which means that when they get the chance they are happy to crowd out the good guys.
The influence of these colonies is so strong that they may even be controlling your appetite – sending signals for you to eat the foods that they need – which is fine if you’re full of friendly bugs, but if your gut is teeming with yeasts and other nasties, you may be tempted to eat all the things that they need instead of what you need, creating a vicious circle.
It takes a bit of a leap to recognise that you are being managed by colonies of organisms that are impossible to see with the naked eye, and that your future is significantly in their hands. Support the good guys and they will support you; feed the bad guys and you’ll all go down together. But even if you suspect your internal assembly resembles the Mafia more than the WI, you can change it. Easily. Your food choices have never seemed more important: you are what you eat but you are also what you feed.
How can you tell if you need an internal reshuffle?
Some of us are more challenged than others when it comes to gut organisms: if you were born by Caesarian section, or missed out on breast feeding you are likely to have a more delicate microbial balance than others; if you have been unlucky enough to need lots of antibiotics or NSAID-type painkillers you may also struggle to maintain a healthy microbiota; and if you have ever had a serious attack of travellers’ diarrhoea then you may need to find out if anything nasty remains. There are other factors which appear to kill off friendly bacteria, like loud music, frequent flying and stress. All of those factors put you at risk.
Other signs and symptoms that you may need to issue some eviction notices include a long history of IBS or constipation; eczema, asthma or allergies; frequent bloating, wind or intestinal cramps; migraine and headaches; unexplained aches and pains including fibromyalgia; difficulty focussing and a feeling of fuzzy/light headedness; recurrent thrush and persistent bad breath; and any form of chronic or critical ill health.
If this is all ringing alarm bells then there are several home remedies you can try:
- Include more prebiotic foods in your cooking: garlic, onions, leeks, chicory, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, yams and sweet potatoes, apples, kiwi fruit, strawberries, plums, gooseberries, oranges and citrus fruits.
- Include more live, fermented foods in your diet such as bio-organic natural yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc. (Unless you are histamine intolerant)
- Remove as many sugary and starchy foods from your diet as possible.
- Remove foods that you know ‘don’t agree with you’ until your symptoms improve.
- Consider a course of probiotics now. (Biocare and Symprove are reliable choices.)
- Consider a booster course of probiotics every time you take antibiotics, go through prolonged stress, return from a foreign holiday, suffer a tummy upset etc. (Biocare do a handy 7-day intensive pack)
But if your problems persist please consider enlisting expert nutritional help and don’t be tempted to rely long-term on medication. Medical science is at least a decade behind nutritional science when it comes to digestive health. Nothing, as yet, in the pharmaceutical armoury, has the ability to restore the proper, healthy balance of enzymes, function and flora in your digestive tract, and almost all drugs targeted at this area are designed merely to repress discomfort. Once you understand how fundamentally important it is to have a fully functioning and optimally populated digestive tract, you’ll see that digestive suppression is a short-sighted solution that is likely to cause more problems than it resolves.
We all have a lot more to learn about how to create optimal gut balance, but the importance of nourishing your gut flora is firmly established. If you suspect your problems are too complex to resolve on your own then please get in touch for some further support.
And stay tuned, because I’m sure there’ll be more chapters to this story.