One of the most important things I can do as a natural doctor is to teach my patients how to care for themselves. This usually requires “unlearning” bad behaviors and shining light on false ideas that are accepted as truth in mainstream society. In order to live a healthy life, there are a number of areas that need consideration. Next week (15th) I will be speaking at the Vitamin Cottage on perhaps the most important area: Gut Health - "gut" being the descriptive term for the entire gastro-intestinal system. Perhaps the most significant motivation for understanding and properly caring for your gut is its interconnected relationship to the immune system. It is now understood that many chronic and degenerative conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis are directly linked to gut health. Simply stated, you cannot be pain-free, flexible, rested, clear-headed, energetic, or any other indicator of “healthy” if you have an unhealthy gut. Continuing reading and I will tell you why.
The Flora Within the linings of your small and large intestine reside some 1014 microorganisms, collectively called the “flora”. There exist somewhere between 300 – 1000 different species of organisms equaling an average weight of nearly five pounds. Bacteria are the most prevalent, with 30 – 40 species making up 60% of the mass of bowel waste. Fungi and some non-pesky (commensal) parasites are present as well. The flora is considered by many as a separate “microbe” organ because of the many essential functions it performs. In fact, it rivals the liver for total number of biochemical transformations and reactions in which it participates.
The purpose of the gastro-intestinal tract is to:
•Digest foods •Absorb nutrients into the blood stream •Aid in detoxification •Support the immune system - preventing allergies. •Synthesize some vitamins (B group and K) •Inhibit pathogens (bad bugs) •Support the endocrine system (for proper hormonal balance) •Metabolize some plant compounds/medicines •Produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) •Eliminate waste.
The functions listed above would simply not be possible without the flora. A flora where the organisms are in proper balance, working cooperatively, is the key to a healthy gut.
Damage to the gut/flora occurs with:
•Antibiotic use – kills the good bacteria. When the good bacteria die an overgrowth of already-present microorganisms, such as a fungus called Candida Albicans or a bad bacterium called Clostridium difficile, often occurs. Overgrowth of these organisms is a frequent cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and overgrowth of Clostridium difficile can develop into a severe life-threatening infection.
•Psychological and physical stress – Several important immune-boosting substances decrease in the body when a person is under stress. One of the most recognized is a particular antibody called, immunoglobulin A (IgA). Likewise, good bacteria such as lactobacilli and an anti-pathogenic substance called mucin will also decrease. When this happens, bad bacteria like shigella and campylobacter often increase.
•Altered intestinal peristalsis – constipation or diarrhea.
•Dietary changes – too many processed foods such as sugars and refined flours can feed bad organisms and irritate the linings of the small intestine leading to an abundance of inflammatory chemicals. Likewise, eating too many sulfate and sulfite foods (processed meats and cheeses) leads to an overgrowth of Sulfate-reducing bacteria (SB). These organisms compete for resources with the more beneficial methanogenic bacteria (MB).
A bad gut disrupts the:
•Structural system – Your muscles, fascia, joints, and bones. Tight muscles and achy joints are not just related to too much exercise. In our society today, a more likely cause is a bad diet creating the gut disruptions mentioned above and an increase in inflammatory chemicals. These chemicals are well known to create tense muscles in the upper back and shoulders as well as any/every other area of the body. I often ask patients who come into the office complaining of a sudden stiff neck, if they recently ate chocolate. Around 50% of the time they had. Chocolate is a known hormonal modifier. So, those who do not need chocolate to balance their hormones, may just get a C.H.I.P. (chocolate and hormone induced pain) as a negative inflammatory reaction takes place within the body and results in a set of stiff and painful muscles.
•Immune system - Studies on the gut flora of infants and young children have shown that those who have or later develop allergies have different gut flora compositions, with higher chances of having the harmful species C. difficile and Staph. aureus and lower prevalence of Bacteroides and Bifidobacteria. One explanation is that since helpful gut flora stimulate the immune system and train it to respond properly to antigens, a lack of these bacteria in early life leads to an inadequately trained immune system which then overreacts to antigens (usually foods). Bottom line…you can train your immune system to work more effectively by what you put in your body.
•Brain chemistry - 95% of the important brain chemical serotonin resides in the gut. This means that if the gut receptor sites for serotonin are disrupted by any of the reasons listed above, you will end up with either too much or too little serotonin. In either case, changes in brain neurotransmitters are likely, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, brain fog, memory loss and more.
•Increases toxins – certain bacterial enzymes from the more harmful bacteria will increase the total toxic load of the body. The enzymes have long names like: azoreductase, nitroreductase, 7-alpha-hydroxysteroid dehydroxylase and beta-glucoronidase. This last one, b-glucuronidase is an enzyme that inhibits the glucuronidation process (a detoxification pathway in the liver) which breaks apart bound toxins or old hormones such as used estrogen. This means that there is too much estrogen floating around the blood stream causing problems. Therefore women concerned about breast cancer (a mostly estrogen-dominant disease) should be concerned about what they eat. They can also take a supplement called calcium-d-glutarate which helps suppress this enzyme and improve liver detoxification.
•Organ Function – The liver especially is susceptible to excess toxin release from the organisms within the gut. It is very common to see female patients with over-worked livers that cannot process their reproductive hormones as a result of ingesting too many bad foods.
Improve gut flora with:
•Good food – The best foods are those that require the least amount of energy to digest and, at the same time, provide the most nutrition. Of course they are the most natural and least processed. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store for produce and good quality meats and some dairy products.
•Supplementation – In this modern world it is nearly impossible to exist in a healthy state and not need some form of supplementation. There are simply too many chemicals, pollutants, nutrition-depleted foods and the like to sustain our daily nutritional requirements. Yes, it can be done and is being done by some, but I strongly suggest that you add high quality supplements to your life-routine. Most people need a good multi vitamin, something for liver detoxification, essential fatty acids (fish oils), specific substances for your individual ailments, and often, good bugs.
•Good bugs - Certain probiotics such as lactobacillus sporogenes, are very helpful at keeping the balance of power in check among the flora. Also, a beneficial fungus, Saccharomyces boulardii, helps reduce some of the gut organisms that produce beta-glucuronidase (one of the four bad enzymes mentioned above).
As we have seen, a healthy gut is the key to a healthy body. And since the flora is the key to a healthy gut, it may just be that the most important “organ” you have is not an organ at all, but a five pound colony of happy bugs.
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