Gut health is a hot topic in nutrition these days. Researchers have linked bad gut bacteria with a range of health issues. What causes poor gut health and how can we balance the bacteria in our microbiome?
Here’s a list of some health issues linked to an unhealthy balance in the gut microbiome—the trillions of bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and viruses inhabiting your lower intestines:
The common symptoms of an unhealthy balance of bacteria in the gut also happen to be the common symptoms of lots and lots of other health problems: bloating, gas, diarrhea, rashes, poor immunity, etc. While there are companies offering gut health testing, the technology is in its infancy. If you’ve lived in the U.S. for an appreciable length of time, you should assume you’ve got an imbalance of bacteria in your gut and proceed accordingly in trying to fix it.
What Causes Bad Gut Bacteria
A balanced microbiota has both a diversity and abundance of good bacteria. If you were born via Cesarean section or have had multiple rounds of antibiotics, you most likely have less microbial diversity and a smaller colony of beneficial bacteria. While you can’t go back in time, you can address the many modifiable factors currently contributing to your unhealthy gut. This system is under constant assault. Below are the most common causes of bad gut bacteria.
Excess consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates can damage the digestive tract and lead to leaky gut syndrome. This intestinal permeability allows proteins, bad bacteria, and undigested food particles to enter the bloodstream. Over time, this condition can lead to systemic inflammation and an immune reaction, which can show up in the form of some of the ailments listed above. In certain individuals, gluten can also trigger inflammation. The preservatives, antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals that make up most processed foods can have similar effects.
The gut has been called the “second brain,” as it produces up to 95 percent of our body’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter that influences mood. As such, physical, emotional, and mental stress can produce changes in gut function. A troubled brain can send signals to the gut impacting gastric secretion, barrier permeability, and local blood flow. Short-term stress can lead to the familiar feeling of “butterflies” in the stomach as well as anxiety-induced nausea, while chronic stress can contribute to gastrointestinal diseases like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Lack of sleep
Research has demonstrated that insufficient sleep can alter the gut flora significantly. These changes may be at least partially responsible for the insulin insensitivity and other metabolic conditions that lead to the development of diabetes and obesity. Disrupting the body’s sleep-wake cycle can also result in cravings for unhealthy food, furthering the negative impact on gut health. There’s more: gut microbes are in a perpetual state of death and regeneration. Some of this occurs naturally during sleep. Those who suffer from disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea are at greater risk of poor gut balance.
On top of increasing the risk of several forms of cancer, alcohol consumption has been linked to SIBO—Small Intestine Bacteria Overgrowth. The extra bacteria in the small intestine are able to consume nutrients that should be absorbed by the body. This results in deficiencies and symptoms of malnourishment. Don’t assume this warning only applies to heavy drinkers: researchers from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic have found that even “the slightest amount of alcohol could have an impact on gut health.”
Medication, especially antibiotics
Thousands of individual research papers show that antibiotics can be extremely harmful to your gut bacteria and some antibiotics create lifelong damage to your GI tract. The contraceptive pill is another big offender when it comes to wiping out good bacteria. Non-steroidal anti- inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can also increase the permeability of the gut. And the proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) often prescribed to reduce the likelihood of peptic ulcers caused by NSAIDS can lead to the formation of lesions in the mucosa lining the GI tract and the increased incidence of SIBO. PPIs work by raising the pH of the stomach but in doing so they also enable more of the bacteria ingested with our food to survive. This may lead to an increased risk of infections, like Clostridium difficile, an over-growth of pathogenic species of bacteria and a limiting of colonies of beneficial bacteria. Related to #1 above, these effects have been shown in recent research to induce gluten sensitivity.
How to Balance Good and Bad Bacteria and Improve Gut Health
Fortunately, since most of these triggers are self-induced, there’s quite a bit you can do to address bad gut bacteria.
- Stop eating out. It’s the single best thing you can do for your health (and your waist). Even if you order what you think is the healthiest item on the menu, you’re still most likely exposing yourself to antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and chemical preservatives. Your gut never has a chance to heal completely unless and until you remove these things and the best way to do it is to cook your own food. Many of my clients do well with Whole 30. If you’re too busy for that (and it’s in the budget), consider a meal delivery service. The one I recommend is Factor 75. The best way to confirm suspected food sensitivities is with an elimination diet and both Whole 30 and Factor 75 will help in avoiding the most common offenders. Note that it may take several months before you can make a definitive determination as to which, if any, foods are problematic for your gut. Ask your doctor for a Cyrex Labs panel if you suspect food sensitivities. Even healthy foods can disrupt your balance of good and bad bacteria.
- If you’re popping Advil most days of the week, consider natural alternatives to NSAIDs such as curcumin and ginger. Herbal remedies promote a healthy balance of bacteria and won’t damage the lining of the gut.
- Colostrum and glutamine supplements can prevent NSAID-induced gut damage. These and other supplements can heal the lining of the gut and won’t disrupt the balance of bacteria in your microbiome.
- Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir are natural probiotics and can encourage beneficial bacteria to flourish in the gut. Eat them regularly. Wildbrine Kraut is one of my favorites.
- Stress feeds bad bacteria in the gut. Yoga and meditation are proven stress reduction methods and you don’t even have to leave your house to reap the benefits. I use the guided meditation app Headspace and I can say with absolute certainty it’s increased my sense of awareness and has helped me to stay calm in situations that would have otherwise induced stress. And if you don’t want to pay for a yoga class, You Tube has got you covered.
- Poor quality sleep is known to alter the production of key hormones in the gut. To help minimize sleep disruption, download f.lux for your computer and cell phone. This program adjusts the color of your screen, reducing your exposure to blue light, and increasing the body’s melatonin secretion. I’ve been using it for years. It works and the tech dorks who are much smarter than me agree.
Gut health is multi-factorial. Many of the choices we make throughout the day have an impact on the balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut. Research continues to demonstrate the role of the gut microbiome on our risk of chronic, degenerative disease. The function of the gut goes way beyond digestion. Implement any of these diet and lifestyle modifications and you’ll instantly improve the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, as well as your short- and long-term health.