Updated: Sep 30, 2019
Is there a party in your gut? Or does your gut look like the fun is long gone and now there is the unhappy remnants of overindulgence? When I saw this image of bacteria it reminded me of the horrible post party clean up. Who wants to do that!
The power of your gut on your overall health
We are only just discovering how powerful your gut microbiome is to your overall health. It is responsible for so many of the diseases that are on the rise today and perhaps we need to be more aware of how crucial it is to keep it in balance.
One of the key reasons I have become such a gut health advocate is because I have personally been able to heal my own crippling anxiety through intentionally improving my gut. A literature review was conducted on the gut microbiota’s effect on mental health (see below for link) and I would love to break down some of the findings for you.
Early days are crucial
What we now know is that the microbiome is developed early. Babies are born with an almost sterile gut but even prenatal stress of the mother has shown to decrease certain amounts of beneficial bacteria in the newborn. When babies pass through the birth canal, the mother's body coats the baby in a protective layer of bacteria that help set up the newborn's gut with good bacteria. These bacteria help by stimulating the babies immune system. Studies have also discovered that babies born via C-section have missed this important step and it can lead to complications later in life. They suffer more frequently from chronic, immune system-linked diseases like childhood asthma, allergies, obesity, type 1 diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease. This is not to demonize cesarean section. I believe that we can be very grateful for modern medical intervention in difficult births, however, it is also important to know that steps should be taken to assist these newborns in building up their microbiome in other ways.
The first week of life is also critical for newborns. If their microbiome is underdeveloped in this stage there have been links to onset of sepsis, eczema, asthma and cardiovascular disease. Are you starting to see that this microbiome thing is a pretty big deal! Breastfeeding is also linked with a boost to the baby's immunity and anti inflammatory processes. There are indigestible components in the mum's milk that are there for the sole purpose of feeding the babies gut flora. Breast milk is the prime nutrition source for the beneficial bacteria in the gut. When babies are weaned, the change in diet transitions the gut to an adult-like gut microbiome make up.
Diversity and balance is key
A change in diet for us, too, can change the balance in our gut in relatively fast time frame. Within hours, there is a change that can become quite marked within 24 hours. If we are aiming to eat a gut-friendly diet to improve our health, it is important to know that reverting back to poor eating habits - processed, low fibre, high sugar content foods, will also revert our balance or good vs bad bacteria in our gut fairly quickly too.
The research is quite clear that having a low diversity of gut flora is correlated with disease and conversely a high diversity is consistent with lower rates of obesity and metabolic disorders. Hey, that should be good news in a way if you are suffering from not being able to shift weight. It could be that your microbiome needs attention and then it can help you with that fight. I can attest to this fact. When I began to eat plant-based, which is full of the fibre your gut microbiome craves, and working on some other gut health strategies the weight just started fall off me. In the space of about 7 months I lost 18kg. And it was a lot easier than every other diet that I have tried. By balancing out my gut with more good bacteria, they were now craving the food that would bring health and a sense of satisfaction. After meals I felt satiated and cravings for sugar disappeared. You see, these bacteria are working in a symbiotic relationship with us. They need the good food and in turn they will boost our mood and help our bodies run like clockwork.
What happens when your gut is out of balance?
"When the human microbiome is challenged with changes in diet, stress, or antibiotics, the physiology of the normal microbiome undergoes change." One of the biggest health problems we face in the west at the moment is intestinal permeability. When the tight junctions of the gut become loose, certain toxins, partially digested food and bacteria can move through the lining and into other parts of our body and bloodstream. The body fights these invaders with inflammation and other reactions include bloating, food sensitivities, fatigue, mood swings, digestive issues and skin problems. There is some evidence that bacteria crossing the intestinal wall may play a role in anxiety and depression, but more research is needed to prove this.
Inflammation causes the release of chemicals that also increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier and here is the interesting correlation to the gut-brain connection. Alarmingly, classic depression symptoms were triggered in healthy subjects by infusing them with endotoxins. In mice, researchers were able to reverse their stress response by introducing beneficial bacteria - namely, bifidobacteria. These are some of the good bacteria that should be in our gut in healthy proportions. How can we make that happen?
So let's talk more about probiotics and prebiotics
Both humans and animals studies, researchers have similarly reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms by using probiotics. Human patients suffering from chronic stress were given a three-week probiotic treatment of Bifidobacteria species. Those in the study were asked to rate the six dimensions of mood - energetic/tired, composed/anxious, elated/depressed, clear-headed/muddled, confident/unsure, agreeable/angry. These patients reported an improvement in overall mood after three weeks. Mice with probiotic treatment had reduced anxiety and helped maintain healthy metabolism and body weight. I am sure the mice were not asked to take a survey, but there are behaviours that are observable from stressed out little rodents.