“Gut” Feelings, Anyone?
Hippocrates was once quoted for saying “all disease begins in the gut.” Time is proving Hippocrates to be a pretty smart guy, and science is even now linking poor gut health with a myriad of health problems.
From eczema to poor immune health, it seems that our gut health influences much more than we previously realized. If all disease beings in the health, it is logical to realize that perhaps optimal health begins here as well.
Ever had a “gut” feeling? There may be more to it than your realize. It is now estimated that over 3/4 of our immune system resides in our intestinal track, with over 500 species of bacteria present.
Overall, there are ten times the number of bacteria in the body as actual human cells, and this colonization of bacteria (good or bad) can weigh up to three pounds. With such a large concentration of bacteria in our bodies, it is logical that we depend rather heavily on them for health.
Traditional diets around the world have typically included raw and fermented foods teeming with bacteria, including many beneficial strains. From yogurt, to kefir, to sauerkraut, to fermented fish, cultures around the world are not afraid of a little bacteria.
In our modern society, we’ve effectively managed to pasteurize, irradiate, and process out any naturally occurring beneficial bacteria while at the same time feeding harmful bacteria with a feast of processed starches and sugars.
On top of that, we sanitize our children from the moment they are born, afraid to ever let them encounter bacteria, good or bad, which are necessary for immune development. Besides the fact that research has found that antibacterial soap is no more beneficial than regular soap and water and might be harmful, raising our kids with Lysol in hand may not even let their digestive systems develop properly.
Babies & Their Digestive System
It has now been found that babies are born with a completely sterile digestive system, since in utero, they don’t need gut bacteria for the breakdown of food as all nourishment comes from mom. During the rather messy birth process, the baby’s digestive system begins to colonize bacteria based on the mother’s existing bacteria (good or bad!).
The baby’s bacteria further develops during breastfeeding thanks to certain strains of immune boosting beneficial bacteria found only in breastmilk. Since the baby depends on the birth process and on breastmilk for this balance of bacteria, it makes sense that babies born naturally and then breastfed have lower rates of eczema, allergies, and illness.
Babies born by cesarean or who are formula fed are not doomed from the start, but it is good for parents to be aware of this need for probiotic bacteria and consider supplementation and natural sources.
After the infant stage, toddlers naturally supplement probiotics by putting everything, dirt included, into their mouths. If given the proper resources, these beneficial bacteria grow and flourish, boosting immunity and allowing proper breakdown of food.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the norm anymore. More often, the balance of good bacteria is altered by an abundance of starches/sugars/vegetable oils in the diet, or destroyed completely by antibiotic use or other pharmaceuticals. Lack of exposure to bacteria in environment and food further aggravate this problem.
In fact, in our Clorox cleaned world of processed foods, many of us might benefit from a good dose of healthy bacteria. The digestive track as has almost as many nerve cells as the spinal cord, and research is increasingly linking digestive health to overall health.
Beneficial bacteria is necessary to properly digest food (especially starches) and to absorb nutrients. It plays a big role in overall immunity. With the rise of digestive problems like IBS, Crohn’s disease, Celiac Disease, colitis, allergies, etc., a good dose of beneficial bacteria certainly wouldn’t hurt.
The good news is that while outside sources are constantly working against our good bacteria these days, there are ways to boost good bacteria naturally, even for those of us not still nursing or fond of eating dirt.
An Ounce of Prevention…
Grandma said it and it still holds true. One of the best ways to keep beneficial bacteria from becoming depleted is to avoid the things that deplete it in the first place, including:
- antibiotic use (especially if it can be avoided or natural alternatives can be used)
- use of antibacterial soap
- overuse of harsh cleaning chemicals to sanitize environment
- consumption of processed and refined foods
- consumption of sugars or excess of starches
- any sources of stress on the body that can be avoided (lack of sleep, overexertion, etc.)
Building Up Good Bacteria in the Digestive System
Fortunately, even if you’ve depleted your beneficial bacteria by some of the methods above, there are ways to increase it and help balance the bacteria in your digestive system. Chances are, unless you already consume a lot of fermented foods, garden barefoot a lot and eat some dirt, your probiotic balance could use a boost.
Here are some tips for boosting your probiotic balance:
- Don’t Eat Sugars/Grains/Excess Starches/Vegetable Oils– These foods deplete beneficial bacteria very quickly and can consequently suppress immunity and lead to a variety of health problems. There is no need to eat these foods, especially in processed form, so for the sake of your guts… avoid them!
- Eat Lots of Real Foods- Eating foods like vegetables, proteins and fats will help support beneficial bacteria that feed on certain types of fiber in foods like veggies. They will also support the body in culturing additional good bacteria, as will…
- Consume Fermented Foods and Drinks– Foods like Sauerkraut, Kimichi, Fermented Salsa, Fermented Veggies, Natural Yogurt, Kefir, Naturally Aged Cheeses, etc. are natural sources of probiotics and eating a variety of these will help get in all the beneficial strains of bacteria. Cultured drinks like kombucha and water or milk kefir also provide probiotics.
- Use natural soap and water instead of antibacterial– Antibacterial soap kills bacteria, good or bad, and some suggest that overuse of antibacterial soap may be contributing to the rise in resistant strains of bacteria like MRSA. Use a quality natural soap and warm water to clean hands.
- Start Gardening– Believe it or not, the benefits of dirt that ring true for kids are still beneficial to adults. If you aren’t fond of mud pies, take up gardening. It is a way to get your vitamin D and probiotics in while producing your own food… a win-win!
- Don’t Overuse Antibiotics– There are certainly cases when it is best to use antibiotics, but for mild illnesses that can be left to run their course or treated naturally, consider skipping the antibiotics, which will deplete all gut bacteria, including the beneficial strains. If you do need to take antibiotics, make sure to take a high quality probiotic at the same time and for a while afterward to help replenish bacteria.
- Take A Probiotic Supplement– Many of us need more help in the probiotic department than simple dietary changes can provide. That being said, supplementing probiotics without a change in diet and lifestyle is just a waste of money! If you are already eating real foods including fermented foods/drinks and using other ways to replenish your bacteria, consider supplementing probiotics, at least for a while. This is also an important recommendation if you are currently using or recently have used antibiotics. Children with eczema, allergies, digestive disturbances or those who were formula fed can often benefit from probiotics as well.
- Try to GAPS/SCD diet– These diets are specifically focused on healing and rebuilding a digestive system that has been harmed over time. If you have specific or acute symptoms, one of these diets may be the fastest/best way to help your body recover.
What do you think? Do you get enough good bacteria? Ever realize your guts did so much work? Tell me below!