Dr. Sonya Nobbe, ND
Though integrative medicine professionals have educated patients about the bacteria in their digestive tract for decades, a recent explosion of research and media attention is bringing this medical game-changing understanding to public light: Our lives depend on these bacteria. We’re neglecting to care for them and now our healthcare system is overwhelmed by epidemics of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, and cancer, all of which are scientifically linked to unhealthy gut bacteria. We’ve acknowledged that this “gut microbiome” is directly linked to our immune system, thereby triggering autoimmune diseases, allergies, and asthma, when unbalanced. It’s also linked to our brain, thereby influencing our behaviour and possibly even triggering mood disorders. Though this science remains a few years ahead of current conventional medical practice, traditional medical systems such as Asian medicine, adapted by Western Integrative Medicine practitioners, have much experience and wisdom to share with us about protecting our gut bacteria, and our health.
Our bodies are composed of 10 times more bacteria than cells. The majority of these bacteria exist in our gut alongside where about 70% of our immune system function resides. They generate chemicals that teach our immune cells how to function and target harmful microbes. We’ve evolved with these bacteria so that disturbing them at critical points in our lives causes serious immune system shifts that we’re only beginning to understand. Therefore, immune imbalances such as asthma, allergies, or inflammation (e.g. some chronic pain conditions, heart disease, and some skin disorders), are a key sign that the gut microbiome may not be healthy. Gastrointestinal diseases or symptoms of poor digestive function (e.g. bloating, heartburn, constipation or diarrhea), are also common signs that the gut microbiome requires some extra protection.
Protecting your Gut Microbiome
First, focus on a healthy diet that feeds the good guys and starves the bad. This can be easier said than done, as very recent research reveals what many of us have already experienced: The bacteria in our gut can influence our behaviour by stimulating fat or sugar cravings! We’re still exploring how they do this, whether by adjusting taste receptors in our mouth or by shifting the feel-good brain chemicals dopamine or serotonin. (The gut produces 95% of the body’s serotonin.) Fortunately, evidence suggests that changing our diet can shift our gut microbiome in as little as 24 hours.
Feed the good bacteria with a whole-foods diet that includes organic veggies, some raw foods, and fermented foods (e.g. sauerkraut, which contains good bacteria). Fermented food recipes can be sought from GAPS diet or Weston Price Foundation resources, or a Registered Holistic Nutritionist or Naturopathic Doctor.
Strictly avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners. Quite a few studies indicate that the chemical sweeteners we’ve come to rely on as sugar replacements (e.g. aspartame, sweet n’ low, and even fructose), change our gut microbiome and contribute to the development of obesity and diabetes. Refined carbohydrates such as from flour, can also negatively impact our gut bacteria, so reserve bread and baked goods for treats rather than dietary staples.
Exert caution in these diet changes if you consider your health to be only moderate or poor. Sudden or drastic changes in diet could precipitate uncomfortable symptoms as the body works to process the shift in the gut microbiome and nutrient intake.
Second, if you’ve had any surgical or pharmaceutical intervention that has changed your gut, speak to someone who understands how to help your body compensate for these changes. For example, acid-blocking medications, while often effective at addressing the symptom of reflux, do not address the underlying cause of the reflux and can disturb the bacteria population significantly. If you had your appendix removed, know how to replete your good bacteria if you experience a stomach flu or other gut disturbance, as new research suggests that the organ might be a protective storehouse that re-inoculates us with good bacteria when needed.
Third, only use antibiotics for serious health conditions and as a last resort. These damage good bacteria just as much as the bad ones. There are many natural anti-microbials such as berberine alkaloids, oil of oregano, and garlic extract, that provide effective protection for mild to moderate illnesses without the same harmful consequences. If used in place of antibiotics, these should always be used under the guidance of a properly trained health professional.
Finally, the correctly formulated probiotic (good bacteria) supplement can make a significant difference in your health concerns. Different bacteria strains promote different health benefits, and not all probiotic supplements are made alike. Choose a company that conducts clinical studies on their own product and offers full disclosure on manufacturing procedures and third party testing for contamination. Some of my favourite probiotics are made by Seroyal, NFH, and Metagenics.
A variety of wise old-world medical systems frequently place the gut at the centre of a patients’ health. They recognize that to heal most any health condition, a health practitioner must ensure that the gut is healthy. The lack of integration in Western medicine, in which the gut is treated separately from other health conditions, has arguably contributed to our population’s health crisis of chronic disease. It’s time to integrate old world understanding with new science and technology, for a stronger medicine and healthier community.
For more information about our bacteria and gut microbiomes, please take a look at this wonderful TED talk by Bonnie Bassler, or contact me for a list of references used in this article, (many of which are available for free online). The National Institutes of Health also retains a website about their Human Microbiome Project.