By Dustin Strong, CHN-BC, ACN
“Go with your gut.”
“What's your gut telling you?”
“I have a gut feeling.”
Any of these phrases sound familiar? They should. They’re all common phrases that, whether they were meant to or not, highlight the importance of knowing what’s going on in your digestive system, otherwise known as your gut.
Why should I listen to my gut?
Hippocrates may have said it best over 2000 years ago: “All disease begins in the gut.” Modern science is finally rediscovering this, as more and more studies have been published emphasizing that the 100 trillion natural microorganisms living in each of our bodies (also known as our “microbiome”) are infinitely more important to the state our long-term health than we had thought.
So, bacteria aren’t the bad guys?
Bacteria and other microorganisms are popularly thought of as enemies: disease-causing, nasty little things that deserve to be destroyed. Hand sanitizers are now in nearly every mom’s purse. Anti-bacterial products fill the shelves of almost all popular big-box stores. Antibiotics continue to be over-prescribed.
The truth is, all bacteria, especially in the gut (AKA “gut flora”), are not created equal, especially when it comes to a healthy body. In fact, the type and amount of bacteria present in your body are crucial to the function of your immune system and overall general health.
Among many others, bacteria are vitally important to several things:
- digestion and metabolism of many vitamins
- the severity of allergic reactions
- our ability to manage anxiety and depression
TAKE HOME POINT: The good microorganisms (“gut flora’) in your body are ESSENTIAL to good health and a balanced body.
How have we damaged our gut flora?
There are several ways that we’ve depleted or damaged our gut flora but there are a few that I’d like to discuss in detail here:
C-sections: Healthy bacteria are first introduced to us during vaginal childbirth. However, much of this natural first exposure is missing during a Caesarean (C-section) birth. It has been suggested that this may be why C-section babies suffer with more allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases than vaginally-delivered babies.
While most C-sections are performed because they are medically necessary, several studies suggest that doctors may be performing too many of them.
Not Breastfeeding: Breast milk is full of essential nutrients, including proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates.
Interestingly, enough, however, infants lack the necessary enzymes needed to digest the complex carbohydrates (oligosaccharides) naturally present in breast milk. This is because they are not food for the baby. They are nutrients for the “good,” protective bacteria lining the baby’s gut (Bifidobacterium longum), and are decoys for other, harmful bacteria and viruses to bind to and get flushed out of the baby’s system.
Another breast milk bonus? It contains hundreds of different species of beneficial gut flora bacteria that are introduced to the baby within the first few hours of life (source).
Babies who are not breastfed miss out on the beneficial early growth of good gut flora.
Antibiotics: For decades, our modern society has been exposed to massive amounts of antibiotics (translation: “anti-life”), resulting in unprotected guts in the short-term and antibiotic resistance in the long-term.
How many courses of antibiotics have you personally taken in your lifetime? I suspect that you may have lost count. 4 out of 5 Americans are prescribed antibiotics each year, according to the CDC, and up to 50% of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or are not optimally effective as prescribed. It can take a week or more for beneficial bacteria to re-establish in the gut after a course of antibiotics and even that recovery may be incomplete without help (source).
Take Home point: Modern practices have damaged our natural gut flora balance.
What can we do about it?
The good news is that it’s not all doom and gloom! There are many easy things you can do to balance your gut flora, starting with your personal nutrition:
- Start eating a whole foods diet rich in fiber. Make sure to include plants with various forms of fiber such as beans, beets, nuts, and avocados.
- Try adding fermented foods like real yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
- Keep garlic in the mix.
- Avoid fast foods, processed foods, and sodas of all kinds.
- Consider taking a probiotic. Remember: Not all commercial probiotics are effective. It’s important to speak with a healthcare professional to guide you to a quality product.
- Avoid overuse of antibiotics and prescription medications.
- In addition to the steps above, try a gut restoration program that combines nutrition guidance and a customized plan from a qualified nutrition expert. This is a great way to make sure that you aren’t second-guessing what you put in your body.
Take Home point: By simply altering your nutritional habits alone, you can start healing your gut flora and improving your overall health.
Remember: We are all unique and different - Different heights, weights, emotional states, stressors, exposure to environmental toxins, geographic locations, histories of illness, and diets. What works for me might not work for you. Doing your own research and making a plan that fits you comfortably is always the best way to start.
“He who has health, has hope; and he who has hope, has everything.” - Thomas Carlyle
Dustin Strong in a certified holistic and applied clinical nutritionist and the founder of the Strong On Health wellness center. He is a frequent contributor to health-focused publications and public speaker and educator on health and wellness issues.