The importance of a well-functioning digestive system cannot be emphasized enough. This article explains the role your gut flora and provides tips on optimizing it.
More and more, science is finding that teeny tiny creatures living in your gut are there for a definite purpose. Known as your microbiome, about 100 trillion of these cells populate your body, particularly your intestines and other parts of your digestive system.
In fact, 90 percent of the genetic material in your body is not yours, but rather that of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms that compose your microflora.
True, some of these bacteria can make you sick; for example, the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases recently found Crohn’s Disease may be caused by immune responses to certain gut microbiota.
But the majority are good, and they work together as helpmates to aid your digestive system and keep you well. Beneficial bacteria, better known as probiotics, along with a host of other microorganisms, are so crucial to your health that researchers have compared them to “a newly recognized organ.” For example, we now know that your microflora influence your:
Brain development, mental health, and memory
Risk of numerous chronic and acute diseases, from diabetes to cancer
According to the featured article in Time Magazine:1
“Our surprisingly complex internal ecology has been a hot topic in medicine lately. Initiatives such as the Human Microbiome Project2, an extension of the Human Genome Project, have been working tirelessly to probe potential links between the human microbiota and human health, and to construct strategies for manipulating the bacteria so that they work with us rather than against us.
…They’ve been linked to a range of nasty conditions, including obesity, arthritis, and high cholesterol. Now, two newer areas of research are pushing the field even further, looking at the possible gut bug link to a pair of very different conditions: autism and irritable bowel disease.”
Microflora Being Investigated to Ascertain Links with Autism and IBS
This is precisely what Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s work centers around, and her Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) nutritional plan is designed to reestablish proper gut flora in order to heal and seal your gut – thereby reversing and eliminating ailments running the gamut from autism, ADD/ADHD, learning disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, just to name a few possibilities. It’s exciting to see science is starting to take this more seriously, as autism has reached epidemic proportions.
According to the featured Time article:3
“Up to 85 percent of children with autism also suffer from some kind of gastrointestinal distress such as chronic constipation or inflammatory bowel disease. Research published in 2005 in the Journal of Medical Microbiology and in 2004 in Applied Environmental Microbiology4 reported that the stools of autistic children contained higher levels of the bacterium Clostridium,while two 2010 studies in the Journal of Proteome Research5 and Nutritional Neuroscience6 reported unusual levels of metabolic compounds in autistic children’s urine consistent with the high bacterial levels found in the stools of autistic patients.
In 2011, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that mice with essentially germ-free guts showed abnormal movement and anxiety symptoms, suggesting that at least some active intestinal biome is essential for normal development.
‘Until a little while ago it was outlandish to suggest that microbiomes in the gut could be behind this disease,’ University of Guelph assistant professor of biology Emma Allen-Vercoe said. ‘But I think it’s an intersection between the genetics of the patient and the microbiome and the environment.'”
Recent research published in the journal Science7 may shed much needed light on the persistent and hard-to-treat nature of irritable bowel disease (IBD). The researchers infected mice with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite associated with lethal food-borne illness.
Interestingly, when the immune system of the mouse reacted to the presence of the parasite, it also began overreacting to beneficial bacteria. In fact, while about 10 percent of the T cells in the GI tract attacked the parasite, approximately 45 percent of the T cells began attacking other gut microbes. Furthermore, once the parasite had been successfully cleared, the immune system continued to misidentify beneficial bacteria as a foreign agents, preventing the mice from ever fully recovering from the infection. As stated by Time:
“If something similar happens in humans – either with Toxoplasma gondii or another invader – it could go a long way to explaining both the existence and persistence of all of the IBD conditions.”
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:8
“The team’s findings are among the first to demonstrate that T cells in the gut mount an immune response to commensal bacteria [normal microflora] during an infection. They also are the first to show that commensal-specific T cells remain in circulation after the infection is cleared. Based on their observations, the investigators speculate that, when uncontrolled, commensal-specific T cells may contribute to development of Crohn’s disease, but more research is needed.”
Who Would Have Known? Breast Milk Boosts Beneficial Growth of Gut Flora
Adding more weight to Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s insistence that breastfeeding is crucial to help normalize an infant’s microflora (hence protecting against disease and developmental problems), a first-of-its-kind study on human breast milk and its impact on infants’ gut flora gives new insight on why breast milk is better than formula at protecting newborns from infectious illness.9
The study’s author, William Parker, explained that breast milk appears to promote a healthy colonization of beneficial biofilms. Previous research has already established that breast milk reduces diarrhea, flu, and respiratory infections in babies, as well as lowers their risk of developing allergies, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.
According to Duke University:10
“‘This study is the first we know of that examines the effects of infant nutrition on the way that bacteria grow, providing insight to the mechanisms underlying the benefits of breast feeding over formula feeding for newborns,’ said William Parker, PhD, associate professor of surgery at Duke and senior author of the study.
Only breast milk appears to promote a healthy colonization of beneficial biofilms, and these insights suggest there may be potential approaches for developing substitutes that more closely mimic those benefits in cases where breast milk cannot be provided.”
The researchers grew bacteria in samples of three popular brands each of milk- and soy-based infant formulas, cow’s milk, and breast milk. All samples were incubated with two strains of beneficial E.coli bacteria (while some E.coli cause violent disease, other ‘friendly cousins’ actually serve helpful roles). While the bacteria rapidly multiplied in all the specimens, there was one major difference. In the breast milk specimens, the bacteria formed biofilms, whereas the bacteria in the whole milk and the different infant formulas grew as individual organisms and failed to form into a biofilm.
This is indeed important. Biofilms are essentially thin, sticky bacterial “sheaths” that adhere to your intestinal wall, where they serve as a shield, effectively blocking out pathogens and infectious agents. This is an essential part of the “healing and sealing” of your gut that Dr. Campbell-McBride’s GAPS protocol accomplishes.
According to Duke University:
“…This study adds even more weight to an already large body of evidence that breast milk is the most nutritious way to feed a baby whenever possible,” said Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti, M.D., co-director of the newborn nursery for Duke Children’s and Duke Primary Care. “We know that babies who receive breast milk have better outcomes in many ways, and mother who breast feed also have improved health outcomes, including decreased risks of cancer. Whenever possible, promoting breast feeding is the absolute best option for mom and baby.”
How to Optimize Your Gut Flora
A healthy diet is the ideal way to maintain a healthy gut, and regularly consuming traditionally fermented or cultured foods is the easiest way to ensure optimal gut flora. Healthy options include:
Fermented vegetables of all kinds (cabbage, carrots, kale, collards, celery spiced with herbs like ginger and garlic)
Lassi (an Indian yogurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner)
Fermented raw milk such as kefir or yogurt, but NOT commercial versions, which typically do not have live cultures and are loaded with sugars that feed pathogenic bacteria
Just make sure to steer clear of pasteurized versions, as pasteurization will destroy many of the naturally occurring probiotics. For example, most of the “probiotic” yogurts you find in every grocery store these days are NOT recommended. Since they’re pasteurized, they will be associated with all of the problems of pasteurized milk products instead. They also typically contain added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, dyes, and/or artificial sweeteners; all of which are detrimental to your health.
Consuming traditionally fermented foods will also provide you with the following added boons:
Important nutrients: Some fermented foods are excellent sources of essential nutrients such as vitamin K2, which is important for preventing arterial plaque buildup and heart disease. Cheese curd, for example, is an excellent source of both probiotics and vitamin K2. You can also obtain all the K2 you’ll need (about 200 micrograms) by eating 15 grams, or half an ounce, of natto daily. They are also a potent producer of many B vitamins
Optimizing your immune system: Probiotics have been shown to modulate immune responses via your gut’s mucosal immune system, and have anti-inflammatory potential. Eighty percent of your immune system is located in your digestive system, making a healthy gut a major focal point if you want to maintain optimal health, as a robust immune system is your number one defense system against ALL disease
Detoxification: Fermented foods are some of the best chelators available. The beneficial bacteria in these foods are very potent detoxifiers, capable of drawing out a wide range of toxins and heavy metals
Cost effective: Fermented foods can contain 100 times more probiotics than a supplement, so just adding a small amount of fermented foods to each meal will give you the biggest bang for your buck
Natural variety of microflora: As long as you vary the fermented and cultured foods you eat, you’ll get a much wider variety of beneficial bacteria than you could ever get from a supplement
When you first start out, you’ll want to start small, adding as little as half a tablespoon of fermented vegetables to each meal, and gradually working your way up to about a quarter to half a cup (2 to 4 oz) of fermented vegetables or other cultured food with one to three meals per day. Since cultured foods are efficient detoxifiers, you may experience detox symptoms, or a “healing crisis,” if you introduce too many at once.
Learn to Make Your Own Fermented Vegetables
Fermented vegetables are easy to make on your own. It’s also the most cost-effective way to get high amounts of healthful probiotics in your diet. To learn how, review the following interview with Caroline Barringer, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and an expert in the preparation of the foods prescribed in Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Nutritional Program. In addition to the wealth of information shared in this interview, I highly recommend getting the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, which provides all the necessary details for Dr. McBride’s GAPS protocol.
Although you can use the native bacteria on cabbage and other vegetables, it is typically easier to get consistent results by using a starter culture. Caroline prepares hundreds of quarts of fermented vegetables a week and has found that she gets great results by using three to four high quality probiotic capsules to jump start the fermentation process.
Caroline prepares the vegetables commercially and I used hers for a month before I started making my own. So, if you just want to put your toe in the water and see if you like them, you can order a jar or two and try them out. You can find her products on www.CulturedVegetables.net or www.CulturedNutrition.com.
AVOID This to Optimize Your Gut Flora!
Along with eating naturally fermented foods and/or taking a high-quality supplement, it’s essential that you avoid sugar, including fructose. Sugar nourishes pathogenic bacteria, yeast, and fungi in your gut, which may actually harm you more than its impact on insulin resistance. One of the major results of eating a healthy diet like the one described in my nutrition plan is that you cause your beneficial gut bacteria to flourish, and they secondarily perform the real “magic” of restoring your health.
Remember, an estimated 80 percent of your immune system is located in your gut, which is just one more reason why “tending to” your gut microflora is an essential element of good health. A robust immune system, supported by your flourishing inner ecosystem, is your number one defense against ALL disease, from the common cold to cancer. I feel very strongly that if we can catalyze a movement to get more people to implement this ancient dietary wisdom to their normal eating patterns, then we’ll start seeing a radical change in health.