The nature of being alive means we are in constant motion, down to the molecular level. It also means our boundary with the outside world isn't as severe as we might like to think. Our entire digestive tract is filled with multi-strain living bacterial organisms - most of which are there to keep us healthy.
Our digestive system depends on the existence of micro-organisms to assimilate our nutrition and maintain health. These micro-organisms, which include a variety of bacteria, are vital to our state of health. They are the foundation for not only our digestive health, but our systemic health – including immune function, brain function, various endocrine functions and more. They help defend our system from pathogens, eliminate toxins and allow for nutrient absorption. When we are feeling out of balance, or in a state of dis-ease, we often look to these tiny microbes and make sure they are supported and in good population to support health and the healing process.
In "Part 1" of my Gut Health Series, we'll explore the good guys, the bad guys and why our Gut Flora matters more than almost any other “health treatment” out there.
What is “Gut Flora”?
Gut Flora is defined as a “complex of microorganism species that live in the digestive tract” (primarily the large intestine) and is the largest reservoir of human flora. The human body is host to trillions of microorganisms in the intestine alone, which is ten times greater than the total number of human cells in the body. Wow!
It might be uncomfortable to acknowledge this vast, wild, living micro-climate within the human body in a society so preoccupied with cleanliness. But without it, we can suffer acute or chronic digestive distress, leading to improperly absorbed nutrition through the intestinal walls – which is often a precursor to a whole host of ailments down the line. The metabolic activities of these bacteria has been compared to organ functioning and in some research has been likened to a “forgotten” organ. This lends itself to the importance of balance – because if one organ or system in the body is not working properly, eventually it will disrupt the functioning of other systems.
Microorganisms can be simplified between Good and Bad. An optimal, healthy balance is good bacteria (“pro” biotic) outweighing the bad. Our diets play a crucial role in maintaining balance and encouraging good bacteria to thrive. We can eat probiotic rich food and/or take nutritional supplements that contain strains of the good bacteria already found in the body to add more of the “good guys.”
Conversely, we can also feed the “bad guys” with processed food, and refined flours and sugars – yet another reason to avoid or limit these foods. Anti-biotic use will also disturb the delicate balance of probiotic flora as it can’t discriminate the good from the bad, so it just wipes out all of the organisms. There will always be the presence of beneficial and not-so-beneficial bacteria living in our colon and the goal is to find the right balance for your system.
Our Front Line
Our gut is literally the first line of defense for our entire health. The way our nutrition is digested and absorbed will impact all other systems in the body. Research is showing a direct link between gut health and psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Endocrine dysfunction such as thyroid problems or infertility can be traced back to gut health. Restoring digestive health is also showing a positive impact on behavior problems such as ADHD or even diminishing symptoms on the Autism Spectrum. A huge part in restoring gut health is through the re-population of gut flora.
Local Manifestations of Flora Imbalance
If we can imagine the digestive tract as a hollow tube – from mouth to you know where – we can notice areas of low flora based on symptoms near that part of the system. For example, women who are prone to vaginal yeast infections are likely suffering from poor gut flora due to the proximity of the reproductive organs to the colon (or as a result of antibiotic use, which is a common side effect in females). The vagina is also an area rich in (hopefully) good bacteria, and a first line of defense in maintaining that is through the digestion (more on the importance of probiotics during pregnancy and labor in the next post – part 2).
Upper gastric symptoms like bloating, indigestion or acid reflux may also be a sign of an imbalance in digestive flora. To improve your symptoms, it is important to include probiotic foods or supplements with meals, as ingestion of probiotics on their own get destroyed by stomach acid before they can reach lower down in the digestive tract. Stay tuned for later in this series where we’ll give you nine ways to eat your probiotics.
How can our digestive health so significantly impact our systemic health? The flora of our intestines also help to maintain a healthy intestinal lining, so that only the essential nutrients can get into the blood stream (and so the waste can be kept out and eliminated). When the lining becomes compromised, other particles can seep through, causing inflammation or even auto-immunity (also known as “leaky gut”).
There are many factors that contribute to compromised intestinal lining – such as food allergy or intolerance, stress, even aging – and we’ll go into the many factors in Part Three of this series. Probiotics play a major role in the protection and maintenance of a healthy intestinal wall (along with high-quality grass-fed collagen). Probiotics are important and safe for infants, children and adults – consider discussing with your family doctor on making them a part of your daily health routine.