The state of our gut is crucial for our health. Why? The short answer is that our guts are home to a vast ecosystem of billions of microbes, bacteria, etc. that are designed to work together to support our bodies, boost our immune system, and so, so much more. This bacteria helps our bodies optimally carry out the necessary functions. Read more about why gut health matters here.
In today’s world, there’s a war being waged on the good guys (healthy bacteria) in our gastrointestinal tract. From pollutants in air we breathe to chemicals found in our tap water to the food on our plates, this battle on our gut bacteria, whose jobs are to support our gut health, is constant.
THINGS THAT CAN HARM GUT BACTERIA
There are major factors negatively impacting gut health today, leading to an imbalance in the gut microbiota and often causing serious disturbances in the digestive system and body overall.
Taking someone’s gut health into consideration means we need to take it all the way back to the beginning. This means we look at the biography of their life and, therefore, their gut history.
When I said we need to take it back to the beginning, I meant it! The way someone comes into this world has an impact on their initial gut health.
During a natural birth process, a baby is exposed to beneficial microorganisms in the birth canal. This exposure is connected to the development of healthy gut flora and immune system development. The CDC estimates that just over 30% of births are Cesarean sections (CDC, 2017).
Nature Communications published a study that looked at whether the type of delivery has an effect on a baby’s immune system. During the study, stool samples were taken one to five days after the birth of 33 babies that were born by either vaginal or cesarean deliveries. Researchers performed an analysis of genetic material from uncultured microorganisms found in the stool samples. This method allowed the detection of numerous bacterial strains and the evaluation of any differences in bacterial classification among the stool samples taken.
The study found differences in the microbiome of babies born naturally or by a Cesarean section. Babies delivered by Cesarean section lacked the bacteria present in samples taken from naturally born babies (Wampach et al., 2018). To summarize, babies born via c-section are not exposed to a large number of beneficial bacteria normally found in the birth canal.
Sidenote: There are instances that allow for a baby born via Cesarean section to get some of the beneficial bacteria from mama. Swabs of bacteria are taken from the mother’s vagina and rubbed onto the baby. This would be something to discuss with medical care providers.
The thing about antibiotics is that while they kill pathogenic bacteria, they also annihilate beneficial bacteria as well. This can lead to dysbiosis- an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. Overexposure to antibiotics also causes concern for antibiotic-resistant superbugs. There is growing concern about the number of antibiotics prescribed unnecessarily. Anywhere from 20% to 50% of antibiotics prescribed in US acute-care hospitals are unnecessary or inappropriate (2016).
Antibiotic exposure doesn’t just stop when the prescription runs out. Antibiotics are found in everyday products, from soaps to cleaners, and even the food we eat (particularly meat).
Side note: This isn’t about the right or wrong of taking medication, but antibiotics abuse and misuse are real. In the event an antibiotic is necessary, you can take a quality probiotic to revitalize and replenish some of the good bacteria in your gut. This may help avoid some of the negative side effects (killing off good bacteria, indigestion, upset stomachs, etc.).
Much of the crops planted and foods we eat today are much further from their true, original form that the generations before us consumed. Between genetically-modifies organisms (GMOs) and additional conventional agricultural practices, which use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, food just isn’t what it used to be. Hundreds of herbicides and pesticides are allowed to be used in planting and food production, much of which has the potential to wind up on our plates.
The American diet further contributes to the problem and does not favor positive gut health. Western diets are high in refined sugar, industrialized seed oils, and processed food which hinder the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
High and consistent stress is very much a part of the modern-day lifestyle. Stress has been shown to cause a disturbance in the gut flora and lower the immune system.
Stress also negatively impacts digestion by disrupting the parasympathetic nervous system, which is also the body’s rest and digest system. This system signals the body to produce things like hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes to help us break down the food we eat. When we experience high volumes of stress, our bodies can have a tougher time digesting food without enough of this hydrochloric acid.
When we are stressed, our bodies experience increased volumes of cortisol (stress hormones). Cortisol not only takes a hit to the immune system but it can contribute to stubborn belly fat, elevate blood sugar levels, and more.
Throughout our life, we are exposed to things outside of our control that throw punches to our gut health. However, there’s good news: There ARE things you can do to show your gut some love, remove some of these irritants, and support your overall health!
HOW YOU CAN START TO SUPPORT YOUR GUT HEALTH
The unfortunate reality is that in today’s culture, our guts are under constant attack. It might feel overwhelming to try to both protect and preserve the “good guys” in our gut flora.
Research continues to connect the state of the gut with immunity, showing that the integrity of our gut is vital to our health. It’s suggested more and more that an unhealthy balance of gut flora can contribute to developing poor health concerns. Such conditions include, but are not limited to, chronic disease, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, diabetes, insulin resistance, weakened immune system, autoimmunity, diabetes, and more.
It’s never too late to start prioritizing gut health. Here are ways you can start supporting your gut today:
Brief periods of stress have been shown to have an impact on the balance of gut microbiota (2014).
Deep breathing, meditation, moving your body, stretching, not overscheduling yourself, and journaling or writing are all free ways to manage stress.
LIMIT REFINED SUGAR
Diets high in processed food and sugars can decrease the number of good bacteria in the gut and feed bad bacteria, leading to an overgrowth of things like yeast (candida). Simply put, if put junk into your gut all the time, you’ll feed more of the bad guys.
If you put good, whole foods things into your gut and feel the good guys. This is not referring to natural sugars found in produce/fruits- that’s a different form of sugar processed in the body and is good in moderate consumption.
GO FOR ORGANIC
One of the easiest ways to support our microbiome is choosing foods that nourish and heal it, as opposed to harm it.
By eating more organic foods, you’re likely to consume less toxic and harmless chemicals/pesticides (like glyphosate).
EAT MORE PRE AND PROBIOTIC FOODS
Consuming foods that are naturally rich in pre and probiotics are a great way to support your gut microbiome (more to come on this in the future). Prebiotics are foods that essentially feed your probiotic “good bugs”!
6 Examples of Pre-biotic foods include onion, garlic, banana, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, and dandelion greens.
6 Examples of Pro-biotic foods include quality yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, kimchi, and kombucha.
TAKE A PROBIOTIC SUPPLEMENT
A typical Western diet seriously lacks cultured and fermented foods, which are naturally rich in probiotics. A probiotic supplement increases the diversity of beneficial gut flora.
There are tons of different probiotics out there. I’ve tried multiple over the years on my journey to healing leaky gut syndrome. Out of them all, this one’s my favorite!
With all the factors leaving a negative impact on our gut health, isn’t it nice to know there are things within your control to start fostering a healthier gut?!
Sources: Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018. Source Here Wampach, L., Heintz-Buschart, A., Fritz, J.V. et al. Birth mode is associated with the earliest strain-conferred gut microbiome functions and immunostimulatory potential. Nat Commun 9, 5091 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-07631-x US Food and Drug Administration. Battle of the bugs: fighting antibiotic resistance. Updated May 4, 2016 [Full text]