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For decades we have been told exposure to bacteria is bad for us, and so we use antibacterial everything, take antibiotics like candy, and consume pasteurized, bleached and processed foods. Is it possible these habits could be hurting our health more than they are helping us?
The current research around bacteria being good for our health is creating a lot of buzz, and for good reason. The human microbiome is collectively made up of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that invade almost every part of the human body, the majority of it located in the gut. Microbial cells are equal to the number of human cells: 30-50 trillion microbes to 37 trillion human cells! Which means essentially we are more bacteria than we are human. With about 80% of your immunity making up the bacteria in the gut, it’s extremely important to keep pathogenic bacteria at bay, otherwise our whole body is negatively affected.
The Microbiome and Our Gut
Quantity and diversity of bacteria are the most important factors in maintaining a healthy microbiome, and therefore a healthy body. Healthy bacteria maintain harmony and balance by keeping the host from attacking itself and developing autoimmunity. Our gut contains 10 times more health determining bacteria than the rest of our body, which protects us from infection, supports metabolism, synthesizes certain vitamins, and supports ideal absorption and elimination; one of the most important bodily processes of our health. Although we’re still discovering different types of bacteria in every organ, we are making huge strides: Only ten years ago we knew of 200 different resident bacteria, today we know of more than 10,000. Moreover, we have a good idea of what is destroying the helpful bacteria of our microbiome, and discovering how to replenish them to treat modern diseases.
“All Disease Begins In the Gut” - Hippocrates
A lack of quantity and diversity of bacteria in the gut have been linked to a number of common health concerns such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, cancer, and even autism. Every year, there are 28.3 million doctor visits with diseases of the digestive system as the primary diagnosis, however, most people who have digestive concerns are also affected by other health complications. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, believed that your gut holds great power over your overall health, and plays a large role in disease prevention. Even over 2000 years ago, his knowledge and statements are truer today than ever before. Common digestive symptoms of an imbalance microbiome in the gut includes:
There is also evidence that microbes residing in the gut can affect other areas of the body through their influence on a person’s immune responses. This has been seen in conditions such as:
What Damages Bacteria
The bacteria in our guts are extremely vulnerable to modern living. From the medication we take, to the chlorine found in our drinking water, as well as the prevalent standard American diet lacking in fruits, vegetables and essential prebiotics (food for bacteria). The more exposure we have to these antibacterial agents, the more our normal bacterial inhabitants of the gut will be wiped out, lowering our immunity and making us more susceptible to disease. These are some of the most damaging to our microbiome:
Foods That Enhance Gut Health
Our gut is initially colonized by bacteria from our mother at birth through the vaginal canal. If this doesn’t happen, babies need to be inoculated with this bacteria to initiate the protection of their immune systems. To continue to maintain a healthy microbiome, we need to feed our bacteria with what are known as prebiotics, which also contain FODMAPS (Fructose, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols), which are certain fibers and/or sugars bacteria thrive on, such as:
Fermented Foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, plain yogurt, natto and tempeh are all types of traditional fermented foods used in a variety of cultures as a way to provide natural sources of probiotics.
What about Probiotic Supplements?
Probiotic supplements are all the rage, but are they actually doing what they claim? The supplement industry is saturated with probiotic pills, some being effective and some not. There are many factors to consider when looking for a probiotic to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Depending on your condition you’re looking to improve, certain strains will be more effective than others. Also, looking at how a supplement is protected/ coated to ensure they are able to get through the stomach acid to actually reach the intestines and deliver the bacteria to the appropriate site is critical to getting the best results. Temperature control is also important as bacteria are susceptible to heat and light and will no longer be effective if they reach a high enough temperature. Researching brands, companies, claims, and how they handle/ bottle their bacteria can tell you a lot about the quality of a product. Talk to your doctor or dietitian to figure out what the best types of strains are for you.
Take Care of Your Gut!
Caring for your gut bacteria can determine a large percentage of your health. Cleaning up your diet, lifestyle, and home by switching to greener cleaning solutions, non-toxic hygiene products, getting a water filter, and ensuring you’re eating enough pre and probiotic foods are great changes to start with. If you must take antibiotics, ensure you are following up with a probiotic afterwards to reverse the damage that was done to your microbiome. As research continues, we are finding out more health benefits to maintaining a healthy gut. As of now we know maintaining diversity and quantity of bacteria can enhance brain function, maintains weight easier, boosts immune function, increases bowel regularity, helps clear skin and has even been linked to preventing certain types of cancer. So don’t ignore your gut, and if you have any digestive symptoms, address those immediately before your microbiome gets too far out of balance causing distress to the rest of your body.
Carla Hernandez, BS, NTP, RDE is with the OrthoCarolina Wellness Center. Carla graduated with a degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from San Diego State University, although her desire to learn more about using food as medicine drove her to a non-conventional side of the nutrition field. She has spent time working with a variety of holistic practitioners from naturopaths, herbalists and acupuncturists, traveling and exploring different countries and their healthcare systems. She has a certification as a Nutritional Therapist, and is currently in her dietetic internship to become a Registered Dietitian. She specializes in digestive/immune health and skin conditions (acne, psoriasis, and eczema predominantly),working with clients remotely around the country. She is passionate about guiding and educating others learn what works for them.