Bacteria in our gut is not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, we have 30-50 trillion cells in our body, but only 1 in 10 is actually “us”—the rest are bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms, including your microflora (a.k.a. your microbiome). Our bodies contain anywhere from 2 to 3 pounds of this stuff!
What does gut bacteria do?
Our good bacteria help modulate our neurotransmitters, keeps our gut functioning correctly, helps make vitamins, and can influence genetic expression. Their presence helps the immune system by stimulating the production of Secretory IGA (SigA) immunity as well as our T killer cells. The majority of our immune system resides in our gut, which makes sense considering our intestines are the wall to the outside world.
Gut bacteria also plays a role in:
- Absorption of nutrients
- Manufacture and utilization of vitamins and neurotransmitters
- Aids in detoxification
- Mitigates the effects of stress
- Helps regulate blood sugar
- Influences antioxidant load
- Activates neural pathway between the gut and brain
- Supports carbohydrate metabolism
- Helps support the use of omega-3 fatty acids, minerals, and phytochemicals
- Modulates pain
How does gut bacteria affect our health?
There should be a ratio of 80% of good bacteria to 20% bad bacteria in the body. When the reverse happens, that’s referred to as dysbiosis. Take small intestine bacteria overgrowth (SIBO) for example, a condition that occurs when there are types of bacteria present in the small intestine that should not be there.
When we think about the thyroid or brain, we look to Dr. Kharrazian for insight, but when it comes to genetics and the human biome, Dr. Jeffrey Bland, PhD, has lots of wisdom to share. In his book Disease Delusion, he discusses the importance of gut bacteria for our microbiome. Why is that so significant? Our microbiome goes on to influence our genes.
“The gut is where 50% of our immune system is localized, and is speaking directly 24/7/365 to the bacteria that live in the intestinal tract, so we might have a good family of what’s called the microbiome, these families of bacteria living in our gut. If you have a good one, then it speaks favorably to our genes; if we have an imbalance with some of these parasitic bacteria, clostridia and various types of the conjugating bacteria that can live in our intestinal tract, now it sends a message of alarm to our genes and we start getting inflammation and increasing risk of all sorts of disease. So, I think we now recognize that food, bacteria, human interaction is much more important and complex than we originally recognized.”
When pathogenic bacteria start to colonize, they start to kill off our friendly bacteria, and when bacteria die, lipopolysaccharides (LPS) from their cell walls are released into the gut. These particles are very small. They’re so small, in fact, that they can pass directly from the GI system into the bloodstream. According to Dr. Bland, “When we eat a high fat/high sugar diet, within the next few hours, the LPS creates chronic systemic inflammation throughout the body, increasing the risk of most chronic diseases, including dementia and diabetes.”
LPS is serious stuff. Dr. Kharrazian showed us video showing actual LPS activating neuroinflammation in the brain. Those with head trauma and or stroke are most vulnerable as it can lead to priming of microglial cells. This is an irreversible process that not only effect the brain, but function throughout the entire body.
A recent study released by Neuroscience News in 2019 found bacteria in the soil generate a natural fat that may act as natural vaccine to stress!“It seems that these bacteria we co-evolved with have a trick up their sleeve,” said Lowry. “When they get taken up by immune cells, they release these lipids that bind to this receptor and shut off the inflammatory cascade.” Overall, the study offers further proof that bacteria are important. “This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils,” Lowry said. “We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us.”
Gut bacteria have been linked to many chronic diseases. You only need to type “gut bacteria and chronic health” into Google or PubMed to see links to diabetes, obesity, autism, Parkinson’s, macular degeneration, anxiety, depression, and more. The research showing the connection between the human biome to our physical and mental health can no longer be ignored.
What about fermented foods?
Fermented foods have been around since ancient times and are found in cultures around the world, from Roman sauerkraut to India lassi to Korean kimchi. Just as fermented yeasts are used to make wine, sugars and starches are fermented with lactic acid to produce bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. This process is called lacto-fermentation.
The Weston A. Price Foundation holds fermented foods in high regard. They are quick to point out that in addition to preserving food, the fermentation process creates prebiotic foods that help maintain good levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut. These beneficial bacteria then help create beneficial enzymes, produce B vitamins, increase the bioavailability of certain minerals, and produce the short-chain fatty acids that are necessary for gut health.
Even though a few of these contain soy (which can be a problematic food for many people), note that soy foods have been found to be safe in their fermented form.
You might want to consider making your own fermented foods rather than relying on store-bought products. Since fermentation is a natural process that takes a long time (or at least, “long” in terms of commercial food manufacturing time) and may have varied results, commercial food producers have tried to speed up and homogenize their fermented foods. You could argue, for example, that pasteurization defeats the whole purpose of fermented foods, because heat destroys beneficial enzymes and bacteria. Be sure to watch out for pasteurized yogurt with added cultures—better to eat cultured dairy products that were cultured from the beginning. Likewise, olives and pickles that have been pasteurized and stored in salt and vinegar won’t offer as many benefits as those that have been lacto-fermented.
Instead of these questionable store-bought foods, keep in mind that you can easily make your own. When it comes to traditional foods, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet by Sally Fallon is a great resource.
One more note: with truly fermented foods, it may be best to start by eating very small servings to avoid die-off and detoxification reactions. You may also want to include a variety of these types of foods in your diet to get the benefits of consuming a mix of microorganisms.
Don’t forget your prebiotics!
Why are prebiotics important? Turns out that there are over 50 different types of bacteria in our colon, and these bacteria ferment soluble fibers such as inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and resistant starch (RS) to form acids such as butyric acid, propionate acid, and acetate. Because our body is so smart, it designed our gut cells to use these acids to maintain a healthy gut lining.
With FOS as fuel, a well-fed army of friendly bacteria such as bifidobacterium and lactobacilli can compete with pathogenic bacteria, thereby effectively slowing their growth and keeping our gut healthy.
Inulin comes from flowering plants such as chicory, onions, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes (also called sun chokes), garlic, etc. The oligosaccharides created by the breakdown of inulin are called FOS or short chains of fructose. Maybe now you can appreciate how important foods like garlic and onions really are for our gut health! If you find you have an issue with these two super foods, you might need to reduce the consumption of sulfur containing foods.
Now onto Resistant Starch. Restarch (RS) is kind of a “mutt” formed from starch and fiber. Instead of being turned into glucose, RS travels to the colon intact. There, it can feed our gut bacteria.
There are actually 4 types:
- RS found within plant cell walls: partially milled beans, grains, and seeds
- RS that is indigestible raw due to its high amylose content: potatoes, unripe bananas, and plantains (these starches become accessible with cooking and then act like a normal starch)
- RS that has been cooked and then cooled: potatoes, grains, and beans
- RS that is in man-made ingredients: “hi-maize resistant starch,” potato flakes, bean flakes
RS feeds our gut bacteria so that they in turn create the short-chain fatty acids that keep our gut cells healthy. Happy cells absorb minerals and create vitamins. Another huge bonus? Happy gut cells don’t turn into leaky gut.
Resistant starch improves blood sugar and insulin response, lowers cholesterol and triglycerides, increases the ability to feel full, and reduces fat storage. Sounds great to me! In addition, RS may help with mineral absorption. A study by the Children’s Nutrition Research Center found that for baby piglets, a meal with 16.4% of RS resulted in greater absorption of calcium and iron. The researchers only tested the absorption rate of a few minerals, but I believe that this technique would also help with other minerals and that RS would help humans with mineral absorption as well.
Another bonus, studies by the American Society for Clinical Nutrition found that 50 grams of RS resulted in significant reduction in post-meal sugar and insulin levels while creating a feeling of satiety.
You might want to start with a much lower amount and working up to 50 grams so you don’t get a die-off reaction (or ill effects from toxins being released by dying bacteria). It might also be possible that you can use RS as an indication of the health of your GI system. If there is an issue with your gut, you may respond negatively to RS and experience gas, bloating, etc. and makes sense since RS helps fight “bad” bacteria by feeding the good ones which can help alleviate many health issues.
What can we do to maintain good bacteria?
Stress, aging, dietary habits, and other lifestyle issues can contribute to gut dysbiosis. The most important thing you can do is to find and eradicate any underlying infections and sources of inflammation that may affect your flora. In addition, you may want to consider the following:
- Limit the use of antibiotics—only use them when necessary. (Many people want to treat viruses with antibiotics, but antibiotics work against bacteria, not viruses).
- Consume a healthy low-sugar diet that contains unpasteurized and fermented foods to help maintain your gut’s ecosystem.
- Use probiotics and prebiotics to maintain and/or re-colonize proper ratios of friendly to unfriendly bacteria in your gut temporarily. This is especially important with antibiotic use and also after getting a colonoscopy, when a lifetime of bacteria is washed away in preparation for the test. Since their diversity is limited, the use of supplemental short chained fatty acids and consumption of lots of veggies may be a more effective approach.
- Don’t be afraid of your kids getting dirty. The “hygiene hypothesis” is a theory that says we have been keeping our kids in an environment that’s too sterile, thereby not enabling them to develop a normal flora.
- Eat fermented and prebiotic foods.