As a doctor, I frequently talk to people about how our health depends on what we do and what we eat. But it’s not often that we hear about how the bacteria we host in our large bowel can have a huge impact on our general health and even specific diseases.
Humans host a vast number of microbes on almost every exposed surface of the body. These are mostly harmless “commensal” microbes. Occasionally there can be “pathogenic” microbes which can cause infections and make people unwell. However, there are also certain groups of microbes that can be beneficial to the body. We have as many microbial cells on our bodies as we do human cells. And if you break that down even further into DNA, theirs actually outnumber ours by 1-200 times! So how do our miniature guests affect our insides?
One of the most important functions of our gut bacteria is to form a physical barrier along the wall of our gut to defend against the invasion of harmful pathogens. When we digest food, nutrients are broken down into tiny particles inside the tube and are transported across the gut wall and inside the body. This is a very selective process, so only the substances that your body needs are allowed across. If the bacteria that form the defence lines along the gut wall are disrupted due to diet, stress, antibiotics and other medications, this allows foreign particles to enter the body. These foreign particles activate the body’s immune system which launches an attack on the invaders. Unfortunately, with any attack there is collateral damage, which in this case is your body’s own cells forming the gut wall. The gut wall gets damaged and “leaky”. More foreign material is allowed to leak through and this keeps the body’s immune system in battle mode, also known as chronic inflammation.
Leaky gut and chronic inflammation have been linked to numerous chronic diseases including IBS, inflammatory bowel conditions, asthma, eczema, diabetes, obesity, depression and many more.
Thankfully, chronic inflammation can be halted and the gut wall and lining can be repaired. It can take many years for chronic inflammation to develop, so the process of healing does not happen overnight.
The first step in healing your gut is to remove any potential triggers of inflammation. This might be through adopting a healthier, anti-inflammatory diet, (more on that in a future post!), eliminating foods that you may be allergic or intolerant to or treating a pathogenic infection. If you plan to reduce or remove any medication please consult your doctor first. Once you have removed the triggers, you need to reintroduce good bacteria to your gut, through fermented foods or probiotic supplements, and support their growth with a high fibre diet. You may need additional support with enzymes and acids that are important for digestion. You may also need to support the cells of the gut wall in repair through nutritional supplements or specific dietary additions. And finally, balancing the mind through relaxation, meditation, yoga or therapy is crucial in supporting wellness and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
So are you a good host? I hope this post inspires you to think differently about the bacteria in your gut and how you can support them to give you the best health.