Did you know there is a very important eco-system working hard in your intestines to keep you healthy? The health of your gut bacteria plays an important role in determining your own health and there's a lot you can do to ensure it stays happy.
What is gut bacteria?
Gut microbiota or Gut Flora or is the name given to the microbe population living in our intestine. Every human has up to 2kg of bacteria which make up the gut microbiota. This consists of tens of trillions of micro-organisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria. All these bacteria live in a highly organised micro-world with certain species predominating and controlling others. One third of our gut microbiota is common to most people, while two thirds are specific to each one of us. In other words, the microbiota in your intestine is part of your individual identity. They play a number of vital roles in the body and without them we probably would not survive. Certainly the body cannot thrive without a well functioning gut flora.
We inherit or acquire our gut flora from our mother at birth. Through the birth canal a baby swallows its first mouthfuls of bacteria, it then settles in the baby's sterile gut and becomes gut flora. A baby born by caesarean will have different gut bacteria to those who have been born vaginally. Breast feeding is another way that a baby acquires gut flora to her baby; whatever lives in the mother’s digestive system will become the baby's digestive system. Bottle fed babies acquire completely different gut flora than those that are breast fed.
Why should you care?
These bacteria are crucially important to us in many ways. They synthesise vitamins B and K2; a deficiency of these vitamins contributes to diabetes, obesity, hair loss, grey hair, eczema, anaemia, ulcers, heart disease, strokes, cancer, auto immune conditions, respiratory disorders, mental health problems and degenerative disorders such as Parkinsons and Alzheimer disease. The beneficial bacteria take part in our digestion and absorption of our food, they produce a number of enzymes that break down proteins, carbohydrates, fibre and fats. Therefore if gut flora is not in a healthy state digestion will be poor – constipation, diahorrea, bloating, parasitic infection, yeast infection, diverticulitis and colon cancer are all conditions resulting from dysbiosis in the gut.
Another crucial role of the beneficial gut flora involves the immune system. Around 80% of our immunity is located in the gut wall. The gut flora keeps the two branches of the immune system in balance and encourages it to respond appropriately to 'bad' microbes. The first branch is responsible for what we are exposed to in our environment. The air that we breathe has a number of things like chemicals, dust, pollen, animal hair etc. that settles on our mucus membrane and passes on into the gut and also the chemicals and bad bacteria in the foods. When the gut flora is damaged, the microbes (the 'bad' bacteria) are able to break through the gut wall and this is known as leaky gut. The immune system becomes less efficient and does not prevent these unwanted microbes and toxins through the gut wall then into our bodies. The second branch of the immune system will try to compensate for the first arm and will become hyperactive. This part of the immune system is responsible for allergic type reactions so health problems such as asthma, hay fever, allergies to dust, animals and to food will occur with this hyperactivity. It is also the root cause of autoimmune diseases; common examples are Coeliac disease, Multiple sclerosis (MS), Graves' disease and Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and so on.
The father of medicine.
More than 2000 years ago Hippocrates (known as the ‘father of medicine’) said “All disease starts in the gut” and modern scientific advances are proving this to be true. Nearly all disease can be traced back to a damaged or an abnormal gut flora.
Dysbiosis, an imbalance of gut bacteria where there are not enough of the beneficial strains of gut bacteria has many causes: Antibiotic or anti-bacterial medications (and antibiotic residues found in meat and milks from industrial farming), contraceptive drugs and other medications, food poisoning, overuse of laxatives, excess or not enough dietary fibre, intestinal acidity (due to poor diet), consumption of artificial sweeteners (for example in ‘diet’ drinks), protein deficiency, heavy metal contamination including mercury toxicity from amalgam fillings and stress are some examples of how the beneficial gut bacteria get destroyed.
Healthy gut microbionta can be restored by eating a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. These contain prebiotics, compounds which will encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria. If you already have a digestive problem or health condition or if you have taken antibiotics or take the Pill a quality probiotic supplement is important. In fact a course of probiotics is always helpful and without exception I prescribe these to all my clients. Beneficial bacteria will help to crowd out the undesirable strains of bacteria (although if there are too many undesirable bacteria, a yeast overgrowth or a parasitic infection it will be necessary to address this to repair the gut dysbiosis). Exercise has also been shown to boost gut microbiota diversity.
It is absolutely imperative that we take care of our gut flora to ensure optimum functioning of our digestive system and therefore improve our chances of a long and healthy life.