Stop a second and consider this: You share your body with about 100 trillion other organisms. These bacterial cells live in your skin, mouth, nose, yet most of them reside in your digestive system and especially your large intestine.
Imagine that. 100 trillion orgasms. In fact, these bacterial cells outweigh human cells by about 10 to 1.
Among their duties, these bacteria allow you to get nutrients from food. They’re responsible for training your immune system to know what can hurt you and how to stop it. They even protect your genes by preventing toxic material from leaking through your gut tissue.
Researchers are only beginning to understand the many roles these bacteria play as well as their impact on health and disease. A decade ago they estimated we harbor about 200 species. Today, that number is closer to 10,000 and will probably only increase.
The more researchers learn about these good bacteria, the more we realize how connected they are to overall health.
You’ll always have some bad bugs, but the good ones should dominate. When your gut bacteria get out of balance – when those bad bugs take over – systemic havoc ensues, creating a wide range of diseases.
Whenever I see patients with health issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or leaky gut, I usually suspect gut flora imbalances.
But these imbalances go far beyond just gut health. Name a health problem and gut bacteria probably plays some role.
Studies connect bacterial imbalances with Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and migraines. These imbalances can even inhibit weight loss and make you overweight.
A new patient with an an autoimmune disorder called fibromyalgia, presented to me relating chronic gas, bloating and distention. She was also worried about worsening anxiety and brain fog. Once we fixed her gut, 90% of her symptoms resolved. That makes sense considering about 70% of your immune system lies within your gut and that the gut is also wrapped in a neural network with a direct connection to the brain. That gut-brain connection is very powerful. Fix the gut and you can impact not only anxiety and brain fog but other neurologic and mood disorders like ADHD and depression.
As a Functional Medicine doctor, restoring gut balance is actually very simple: I take out the bad and replace it with good.
Among the factors that adversely impact gut balance are antibiotics, environmental toxins, artificial sweeteners, and a bad diet, but also things you might never suspect like anti-bacterial soaps.
Once I’ve identified the culprits, my focus becomes creating and maintaining a healthy gut that fosters a rich diversity of good bacteria.
That usually begins with what you put on your fork. When patients make the right food choices and fix a few lifestyle components, their gut health improves. They feel better and lose weight. Here are some of the strategies I use to fix gut health:
- Focus on whole, quality foods. Whenever you can, choose nutrient-rich organic plant foods and foods from animals fed their natural diets like grass-fed beef and pasture-raised eggs.
- Eat more fiber. Good bacteria thrive on dietary fiber, and insufficient amounts make it difficult to thrive. A wide array of plant-based foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, berries, and vegetables can feed good gut bugs that help to edge out the bad ones. For patients who find getting enough dietary fiber a challenge, I recommend a high-quality fiber powder.
- Increase your anti-inflammatory fats. When I see patients with gut imbalances, they often have chronic inflammation. Omega 3-rich sources like wild-caught fish, freshly ground flaxseeds, walnuts, and quality fish oil supplements are among the ways you can put out that inflammatory fire that holds your weight and health hostage.
- Eliminate the food that feeds bad bugs. A diet high in refined, sugary foods allows pathogens to grow. So do food sensitivities like gluten, dairy, and corn. While we eliminate these problem foods, I ask patients to keep a food journal because many of them can sneak into the diet.
- Eat (and drink) more fermented foods. Sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, and coconut kefir come packed with natural probiotics that add to your gut bacteria diversity. For therapeutic amounts of probiotics, I also recommend a high-quality supplement.
- Feed your good gut bugs. Prebiotics are what your probiotics feed on. Foods rich in prebiotics include Jerusalem artichoke and dandelion greens. You might also choose a prebiotic-rich powder like inulin or potato starch, but go slowly: Too much at once can create gastric distress.
- Exercise regularly. Among its benefits, regular exercise can foster a community of good gut bacteria. Find something you enjoy that helps you move – that could be yoga, weight lifting, or walking – and do it regularly.
- Sleep better. Getting inadequate or poor-quality sleep could adversely impact your gut flora. Aim for eight hours of solid sleep every night. I find technology can inhibit falling to sleep, so I ask patients to turn off electronics (including TV and laptops) at least an hour before bed.
- Curb stress. Chronic stress takes a direct hit on your good bacteria, creating an environment where bad bugs can thrive. While you can’t eliminate stress, you can reduce it with tactics like deep breathing and meditation.
If you’ve struggled with gut issues in the past, what would you add to this list to restore good bugs and edge out the bad ones? Share your thoughts below or on my Facebook page.