Digestive problems can be embarrassing to discuss in polite company, so many of us suffer in silence and may not even seek medical advice until the problem can no longer be ignored. In fact, digestive diseases are a common medical problem affecting 60 to 70 million people and accounting for over $141.8 billion in annual US medical costs according to the National Institutes of Health. Growing medical research has directly linked gut problems with food allergies, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, poor digestion, inflammatory bowel disease, mood disorders and even skin problems. Yet fixes to many problems can be as simple as making informed lifestyle changes to get back on track.
CONDITIONS AND DISEASES RELATED TO POOR GUT HEALTH
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
- Celiac Disease
- Crohn’s Disease Colitis
- Food allergies or food sensitivities.
- Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, Hashimoto’s Disease, lupus, and Sjogrens syndrome.
- Chronic pain in joints and muscles, including arthritis and fibromyalgia, are related to poor gut health.
- Poor digestion, including bloating, gas, constipation, loose stools, heartburn and nutrient malabsorption.
- Mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
- Skin problems, including eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and acne.
- An estimated 10 to 15 percent of people worldwide suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, and of that percentage, between 25 and 45 million people live in the U.S., according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.
Research is revealing that poor gut health can lead to inflammation and chronic disease. There is also ongoing research about the presence of different bacterial combinations in obese and thin people.
LET’S LOOK AT THE SCIENCE
About 100 trillion bacteria live in our bodies and make up the ecosystem called the intestinal microbiome. The microbiome assists with the absorption of beneficial nutrients that fuel our bodies, fights against unwelcome harmful organisms, and rids our bodies of toxins. The unique assortment of microorganisms in our intestines influences immunity, inflammation, detoxification, and even our mental health. “Research is revealing that poor gut health can lead to inflammation and chronic disease,” explains Dr. Michelle Petro, a gastroenterologist at GI Associates and Endoscopy Centers in Flowood and Madison, MS. “There is also ongoing research about the presence of different bacterial combinations in obese and thin people,” Petro states. Good gut health may be the key to improved overall health, reduced pain and disability, and the prevention of disease.
Harvard researchers looked at combinations of the 1,000 species of bacteria commonly found in the gut and reported that healthy people have specific combinations of distinct bacterial strains. These healthy bacterial combinations seem to have a protective effect against specific illnesses and conditions. In 2016, Mayo Clinic researchers identified bacteria living in the intestine as the possible cause of rheumatoid arthritis. The study suggests that a microbial imbalance in rheumatoid arthritis patients results from the abundance of certain bacteria and a lack of beneficial bacteria. Petro shares, “Research is revealing that with poor gut health, bacteria can leak out of the gut and into the bloodstream, leading to inflammation and potentially chronic disease.” Other studies have also identified particular strains of gut bacteria that may be responsible for regulating the genes that protect against leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers. Certain bacterial strains have even been found to prevent inflammation that leads to fatty plaque buildup and heart disease.
The main factors that affect your personal bacterial mix are age, diet, environment, genes, and medications (specifically antibiotics, which can significantly reduce both harmful and beneficial bacteria). While we don’t have much control over growing older or our DNA, we can make lifestyle changes that increase the number of beneficial bacteria in our bodies.
THE AFFECTS OF ANTIBIOTICS
You do not need an antibiotic every time you are sick. Antibiotics play an important role in treating bacterial infections, but they aren’t needed for viral infections like cold and flu. Anytime an antibiotic is used, both good and bad bacteria are killed. Overuse of antibiotics leads to reduced numbers of the beneficial bacteria that are needed in the gut. When prescribed antibiotics by your doctor, ask for the shortest course or alternate forms of treatment.
THE ROLE OF STRESS
Stress affects the balance and number of bacteria in the gut. Chronic stress decreases the number of good bacteria and weakens the intestinal lining, thereby reducing the body’s ability to fight infection. “Stress can lead to negative effects on your whole body,” says Petro. Gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters like serotonin that communicate with the brain to deal with stress and to regulate mood. A stressed microbiome is associated with inflammation that can lead to poor mental health (anxiety and depression) and a decreased sense of well being.
FIBER AND PREBIOTICS
Good gut health includes fiber rich foods. Fiber fuels gut bacteria, ushers out unhealthy pathogens and improves elimination. Prebiotics are indigestible plant fibers that nourish gut bacteria. The body can’t break down these fibers, but gut bacteria can. This fiber helps good bacteria thrive. Dietary sources of prebiotic fiber include bananas, onions, garlic, artichokes, apples, and beans.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts are packed with glucosinolates that are broken down by bacteria in the colon and fight inflammation and reduce cancer-causing free radicals.
Legumes, such as pinto beans, navy beans, and black beans, release short-chain fatty acids that strengthen intestinal cells and improve absorption. Legumes add fiber, which promotes a feeling of fullness and assists with weight loss.
Blueberries are high in antioxidants and fiber, all of which diversify gut bacteria and improve our immune system.
ORGANIC FOODS IN YOUR DIET
Many foods in our food supply contain antibiotics and pesticides. Antibiotics, like those used in cattle to produce beef or milk, are transferred to a person’s body once they are consumed. The same is true for pesticides on produce. Antibiotics and pesticides negatively affect our bodies over time by depleting gut bacteria and disrupting bodily systems and hormones. To reduce your intake of antibiotics and pesticides, buy organic as often as possible.
Yes, buying organic can be more expensive, but the Environmental Working Group has a guide to the Dirty Dozen, the non-organic fruits and vegetables that are highest in pesticide residue. Go to www.ewg.org to download the checklist.
You can positively influence gut bacteria by changing what you eat. Gut bacteria flourish from a varied diet of colorful, plant-based foods and healthy fats (think avocado, walnuts, olive oil). Petro stated that people need to reduce intake of sugar, processed foods, and refined grains and breads and increase intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Fermented foods are the gut health all stars. These foods are probiotics, foods that add good bacteria to your body. Kefir, kombucha, yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, and kimchi supply the gut with healthy microorganisms that force out the bad bacteria. Adding these healthy bacteria to the gut improves biodiversity, the types of bacteria found in the gut, leading to an improved immune system and overall health.
Sweet n Sauer is a Jackson-based company that produces fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kombucha, fermented mustard, and kimchi. Ingredients are sourced from local farmers and produced in small batches. Sweet n Sauer products are available in Jackson, Oxford, Cleveland, and Meridian. Check out their website at www.sweetandsauer.co or Facebook page for more details.
For more information on gut health, check out Dr. Susan Blum’s book, The Immune System Recovery Plan and Sondi Bruner’s book, Anti-Inflammatory Diet in 21: 100 Recipes, 5 Ingredients, and 3 Weeks to Fight Inflammation.
This information is provided as a guide for improving overall health and wellbeing. Please consult a physician or healthcare provider if you feel you have a medical problem.