Researchers are having a field day with the gut. Nearly every week, it seems, there’s a new study showing that the gut is involved in more than just the digestion of food. I have long believed that there is a link between digestion and all types of chronic conditions, including arthritis and asthma. But new research shows that what goes on in the gut has even wider reaching implications for other areas of our health—from mood and emotions to weight gain. While research is ongoing—and I am sure more links will be uncovered—I think it’s important for you to understand the associations that now are cropping up and to protect yourself as much as possible. I’ll explain…
A lot of the new research focuses on the bacteria (microbes) in the gut. Trillions of beneficial bacteria inhabit our digestive tract, promoting health and protecting us from many diseases.
We have known for a while that having more friendly bacteria than unfriendly bacteria enhances our ability to fight infection and plays a role in preventing some autoimmune diseases. Problem: Gut bacteria populations can become unbalanced or diminished for a number of reasons. Poor dietary or lifestyle habits, as well as stress, alcohol and junk foods, can disrupt the balance of good bacteria. An infection—and taking antibiotics to eradicate that infection—can alter our gut bacteria for weeks, months and sometimes even years by killing all the bacteria—both good and bad. Sensitivity to gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley) or other food allergens also can assault our digestive tract.
In many of these new studies, researchers were looking at the influence that bacterial balance has on health. It’s not realistic to expect to have no unfriendly gut bacteria, but it is good to have a balance that favors beneficial bacteria. Before I tell you how to balance your gut flora, here are some ways in which microbial imbalance affects our health…
Mood disorders. What happens in the gut can affect the brain—so much so that the gut has been dubbed the “second brain.” Researchers now know that much more information is going from the gut to the brain than was previously known. Researchers at University College Cork in Ireland have found evidence that adequate levels of healthy gut bacteria, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus, can boost brain levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and helps prevent anxiety and depression. Research also has shown that most of the body’s serotonin is produced and absorbed in the gut. This, as it turns out, is an important neurotransmitter that influences both gut function and mood.
Weight gain. Gut bacteria help break down foods. They also may influence whether a person is slim or overweight. Researchers have found that people whose diets consist mainly of plants have more of a type of bacteria called Prevotella, while those who have a diet high in fats and animal protein have a lot of bacteria called Bacteroides. Other studies are investigating whether the bacterial population of thin people has greater variety and more beneficial bacteria compared with that of obese people. Researchers also are investigating the connection between weight management/metabolism and gut bacterial balance.
Autoimmune diseases. Diagnoses of autoimmune diseases have skyrocketed during the past 50 years. But it has been only recently that researchers have turned their attention to microbial infections in the gut as a possible cause. A recent study in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology analyzed bacteria in the stools of 40 infants. Half the children had allergic eczema and immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, and the other half did not have any signs of allergies. The researchers found that the healthy infants had a greater diversity of gut bacteria than the infants who had allergies. Researchers speculate that the infants who had allergies were out of balance because of the digestive balance inherited from their mothers.
Improve Your Bacterial Balance
I have long believed that proper bacterial balance is important for good health. But with all the new research, I see no reason why everyone should not work to improve his/her gut bacterial balance. You can do this through diet and supplements. To start…
Make sure that your diet contains plenty of plant foods, because the fiber in these foods can help maintain normal gut bacteria. Especially good for you: Onions, garlic, bananas, soy, peas and beans. These foods contain prebiotics, nondigestible food components that stimulate the activity of good bacteria. Best: Consume at least three half-cup servings of these foods weekly. If you don’t eat a lot of these foods, you can take prebiotic supplements.
Other supplements that can help…
Probiotics. Taking probiotic supplements can help improve bacterial balance. Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria are two species that are commonly found in supplements, but there are many important subspecies in both families, including L. casei GG…B. lactis…and L. plantarum. I have written in the past about taking specific probiotics for specific ailments, but the latest findings suggest that taking a diversity of probiotic species may be more important than taking any one. I recommend taking probiotics on an empty stomach. They are safe for everyone. Formulas from reputable companies usually contain a wide variety of probiotic species. Examples: Enzymatic Therapy (800-783-2286, www.EnzymaticTherapy.com), Jarrow Formulas (310-204-6936, www.Jarrow.com) and Nature’s Way (800-962-8873, www.NaturesWay.com). Follow label instructions.
Digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes help us digest and eliminate our food. They also play a role in balancing gut flora—some enzymes destroy bad bacteria and some enhance good bacteria. As we age, our bodies produce fewer enzymes on their own. I often recommend full-spectrum enzyme supplements such as Enzymedica Digest Gold (888-918-1118, www.Enzymedica.com), because it contains many different enzymes. These are safe for everyone except people with ulcers and some people with gastritis.
Source: Mark A. Stengler, NMD, is a naturopathic medical doctor and leading authority on the practice of alternative and integrated medicine. Dr. Stengler is author of the Health Revelations newsletter, author of The Natural Physician’s Healing Therapies (Bottom Line Books), founder and medical director of the Stengler Center for Integrative Medicine in Encinitas, California, and adjunct associate clinical professor at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. http://MarkStengler.com