BY TRACY McCUBBIN, MD, ABOIM, ABEM
Did you know that our gastrointestinal tract (aka GI tract or gut) has many important roles beyond digestion? Our digestive tract is one of the primary places where our bodies interact with the outside world. A properly functioning digestive system is critical to good health. In fact, problems with the GI tract can cause more than just stomachaches, gas and bloating or diarrhea. GI issues may underlie chronic health problems that seem unrelated to digestive health, including autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, skin problems such as eczema and acne rosacea, and even heart disease. Based on genetics and previous environmental influences, gut issues may even contribute to problems with infertility. Sounds crazy, huh?
The Role of Our Gut
Gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic physiological processes as well as mental processes such as learning, memory and mood. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 85% of the body’s supply of serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, which influences both mood and GI activity.
The microbiome has an impact on the immune system’s development. When everything is working optimally, a healthy diverse microbiome sends appropriate signals to the immune system about whether it should react or not react.
In exchange, the immune system aids in the increase of health-promoting bacteria in the microbiome. When both the gut and immune system are working well, the body is able to respond to infections adequately, avoiding an autoimmune response and ensuring overall health.
For purposes of this discussion, let’s break the GI tract down the small intestine and the large intestine.
The Small Intestine
The lining of the small intestine is an important barrier, letting nutrients in and preventing bacteria, viruses, toxins, and other unwelcome substances from entering the body. In the process of digestion, we absorb nutrients from food while eliminating various toxins and other by-products produced in the digestion process.
A special layer of cells line the small intestine and are responsible for this important process. Between each cell is a tight “junction.” The health of the cells that line the small intestine, and the health of these tight junctions, are key to what is absorbed into the digestive tract.
What is Intestinal Permeability?
If the small intestinal lining becomes damaged, it can become porous or “leaky.” This is known as increased intestinal permeability. Approximately 70% of our immune system (gut associated lymphoid tissue or GALT) is located in our GI tract. If the lining lets through harmful substances or partially digested food, then the GALT becomes activated. Our immune system then sends out inflammatory warning signals to our whole body. This systemic inflammation can present in a variety of ways such as autoimmunity and migraines.
Intestinal permeability can reduce the absorption of essential nutrients necessary for good health which can lead to more disease and additional problems.
While the large intestine is full of bacteria, the small intestine is not. Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) can cause bloating within an hour of eating and a lot of discomfort. This condition can be tested and treated.
As we shift our focus to the large intestine, it is all about the microbiome.
So, what is the Microbiome?
The term simply refers to the numerous MICROorganisms that collectively inhabit our gut (BIOME). Did you know these bacteria and their genes outnumber us 150 fold? We are actually bacteria having a human experience! In fact, recent lab and clinical studies show that this gut microbiome is at the epicenter of health and disease. This relationship begins at birth when the body comes in contact with bacteria for the first time. The immune system then shapes the microbiome’s diversity over time, combined with the individual’s nutrition, environment and lifestyle. Many of these organisms are considered good guys and some can wreak havoc if they grow out of proportion.
What makes Good Gut Bacteria go Rogue?
The answer: Dysbiosis, aka an unbalanced gut microbiome. Thanks to years of eating diets high in processed foods and sugar, consuming conventionally raised meat and dairy products full of hormones, multiple rounds of antibiotics, antacids, and abundant life stressors, many of us have dysbiosis. The high c-section rate in the United States sets children up for dysbiosis as they miss out on mom’s vaginal microflora seeding their gut. And formula feeding exacerbates the problem. Breast milk has an oligosaccharide whose only job is to feed the gut microbiome and promote a healthy microbe balance! When the healthy balance is disrupted, “bad” bacteria run amuck and disease sets in.
I have some good news! You can begin to change your gut microbiome in as little as 4 days according to a study published in Nature in 2013.
So, here are 4 things you can do to begin creating a healthy gut microbiome.
1. Eat the right foods.
Eliminate processed food and sugar. Eat a whole-foods diet rich in polyphenols, which are found mostly in vegetables, fruits, teas and spices. Aim to eat a rainbow of colors everyday, focusing on vegetables with some fruit thrown in the mix. Include prebiotic foods such as onion, garlic, leeks, jicama, asparagus and turmeric. Curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) promotes the growth of good bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli in the gut, while reducing harmful bacteria. And consume some fermented food in your diet on a regular basis.
2. Take a high quality probiotic.
Select one with multiple strains of the good bacteria such as Lactobacillus. Select one that has billions of units of bacteria.
3. Support your digestion.
Eat slowly, chew your food and relax when you eat. Don’t take antacids on a regular basis. If you are on a proton pump inhibitor like Prilosec daily, see a functional medicine provider to assist in weaning off these medicines.
4. Find a technique to manage stress.
Exercise and meditation are my two big suggestions here. High stress levels have been shown to decrease levels of Lactobacillus (good bacteria) in our microbiome. Stress can also lower the amount of hydrochloric acid the body makes which adversely affects protein digestion.
If you would like to work on your gut health, give our office a call. We offer a variety of GI tests and treatment options. Tracy McCubbin MD and our staff at Radiance Functional Medicine would love to join you on your journey to optimal health!