If you haven't yet heard much about your gut flora, chances are you are going to be hearing a lot more about this topic in the future. These previously much overlooked bacteria are now being associated with a wide range of human health solutions and problems. As you follow along with this unfolding science you will want to be sure that you are doing all that you can be doing to ensure that your gut flora are as healthy as they can be. Here we will take a look at what is known about the gut flora, what sends it out of balance and what helps it to thrive.
What Are the Gut Flora?
The gut flora make up a world of microorganisms that populate our gastrointestinal tract. It is estimated there are about 100 trillion of these microorganisms, called microbes. They are predominately made up of various strains of bacteria, but there are also some fungi and protozoa as well. Our relationship with the gut flora is considered to be one of mutual benefit. The gut flora may also be referred to as the microbiome, microbiota or microflora.
Research on gut flora has found that we are not born with gut flora, but newborn babies have their digestive systems populated with flora from their mother during the process of a vaginal birth. (There is some preliminary research that babies born through cesarean section show differences in the makeup of their gut flora). Differences have been found between the flora of breast-fed and formula-fed infants. Once infants are weaned, which occurs around the age of two, their flora more closely resembles that of adult flora.
The gut flora are thought to:
- Promote digestion
- Keep harmful bacteria at bay
- Stimulate the immune system
- Synthesize certain vitamins
- Support gut motility
- Help to absorb nutrients
What Hurts Gut Flora
In a state of optimal health there is a happy balance in which beneficial strains of bacteria keep strains that have the potential to be troublesome in check. "Intestinal dysbiosis" is term used by researchers to describe a hypothetical state in which there exists an overgrowth of the more troublesome strains. Change may be seen in the makeup of the flora themselves, how they are distributed, and how they are functioning.
The following factors are all hypothesized to have a negative impact on the health of intestinal gut flora:
- Antibiotic use
- Modern diet
- Peristalsis dysfunction
- Physical stress
- Psychological stress
When Gut Flora Goes Bad
Researchers have been seeing an association among intestinal dysbiosis and a variety of chronic illnesses. Of course, as you look at the following list, you may not think it surprising to see two bowel disorders. What may come as a surprise is the links to other chronic, system-wide health problems. The current thinking is that the dysbiosis is contributing to an abnormal immune system response which is playing a part in the chronic symptoms of these disorders. Cutting edge research is looking at the role that the health of the gut flora plays in intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome) and how that relates to autoimmune disease.
- Ankylosing Spondylitis
- Atopic Eczema
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
Lifestyle Changes for Healthy Gut Flora
Based on what is known by research to date about what makes for healthy and unhealthy gut flora, the following changes may help you to optimize the health of your gut flora:
1. Keep antibiotic use to a minimum. Of course, you must alert your doctor if you have signs of serious illness, but follow their advice and don't insist on a prescription for antibiotics for viral illnesses.
2. Learn strong stress management skills. Modern life is filled with a multitude of stressors. You can learn skills for coping with these challenges in a way that results in less wear and tear on your body. Visit About.com Stress Management to get started.
3. If necessary, take probiotics. Probiotic supplements contain strains of bacteria that have been identified as being beneficial for humans. Although the research on the benefits of probiotics has been mixed, and to date there is no hard research that they can change the makeup of your gut flora, they are generally well-tolerated and have been shown to improve symptoms in people who suffer from IBS. As with all over the counter supplements, be sure to get clearance from your doctor before use.
Gut Flora and Diet
Although the research in this area is quite preliminary, the following dietary changes may be of help in keeping your friendly gut bacteria happy and certainly will do you no harm:
1. Decrease sugar and refined carbohydrates. These food components interact with gut bacteria through a process of fermentation and can contribute to excessive symptoms of gas and bloating.
2. Get to know prebiotics. As you hear more and more about "gut flora", you will also be hearing more and more about prebiotics. Prebiotics are ingredients in foods that encourage the growth of beneficial flora. Prebiotics are primarily found in vegetables and fruits that are high in soluble and insoluble fiber. Two other buzz words are "fructo-oligo-sacharides" and "inulins" - foods with these prebiotic components seem to be especially gut flora-friendly. Here are some examples:
3. Eat more fermented foods. Fermented foods are foods that already contain within them live cultures of beneficial strains of bacteria. This may sound really exotic, but as you look at the list, you are probably very familiar with two of the examples:
- Sauerkraut (not canned, the raw, unpasteurized kind from the refrigerator section of the grocery store)
Learn more about fermented foods:
- Why You Should Be Eating Fermented Foods
- Fermented Foods Create a Culture of Happy Digestion
- Lacto-fermentation - How It Works
Galland, L. & Barrie, S. "Intestinal Dysbiosis and the Causes of Disease" The Environmental Illness Resource Website Accessed August 24, 2013.
Gibson, G. & Roberfroid, M. "Dietary Modulation of the Human Colonie Microbiota: Introducing the Concept of Prebiotics" Journal of Nutrition 1995 1401-1412.
Gibson, G., et.al. "Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: updating the concept of prebiotics" Nutrition Research Reviews 2004 17:259-275.
Hawrelak, J.A. & Myers, S.P. "The Causes of Intestinal Dysbiosis: A Review" Alternative Medical Review 2004 9:180-197.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.