What in the World is Gut Microflora?
Maybe you’ve heard all the talk about the importance of intestinal health. Perhaps you’ve even experienced what neglecting your intestinal health can do to you. One night of diarrhea or several days of constipation, bloating and gas, can make you pay attention!
Millions of people are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, and other gut-related diseases, but few of us have been educated on the importance of gut health, and what “gut health” even means.
This is likely because only in recent years has the medical establishment begun to focus on the “forgotten organ,” or “second brain,” – the microflora that exist in our guts.
Living inside all our digestive tracts are a network of billions of tiny micro-organisms which support our immunity and physical functioning.
We’re really only 10 percent “human.” The rest of our bodies are a grouping of non-human microbial cells. These cells, in turn, are influenced heavily by what we eat.
The micro-biota, is the ever-changing, living organism, which is just a collection of the gut flora, or gut bacteria – those tiny microorganisms which live inside our digestive tract.
These tiny organisms form into little colonies. You can think of them like the early settlers in the United States, discovering that there were already Natives living there.
Certain gut bacteria, or microflora, have a positive effect on our health, and other types of bacteria, or microflora (which make up our microbiota collectively) cause us to be really sick – to have irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, and depression, and some cases, even, cancer.
The Gut Brain
The gut–brain or gut-brain axis is the biochemical signaling that occurs between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. As Harvard Health details,
“The brain has a direct effect on the stomach. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected.
This is especially true in cases where a person experiences gastrointestinal upset with no obvious physical cause. For such functional GI disorders, it is difficult to try to heal a distressed gut without considering the role of stress and emotion.”
We’ll get to stress in a moment, and look at how it affects the gut more specifically, but first let’s look at what the healthy bacteria like to dine on. They are living things too, and they need food just like you and I do.
A healthy microbiome, or healthy gut, will thrive on a primarily plant-based diet. Here are a few foods to add right away to your diet in order to promote good gut health:
Jerusalem Artichokes – Many people have heard of probiotics, but few understand the importance of prebiotics. You can think of a prebiotic is a special form of dietary fiber, that comes from plants, which acts like fertilizer for the good bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics are essentially food for healthy bacteria. They interact beneficially and symbiotically in relationship with the bacteria you want to cultivate in your belly. Artichokes are full of inulin, an insoluble fiber that support these healthy bacteria.
Kale, Broccoli, Cabbage and Cruciferous Vegetables – Cruciferous vegetables contain sulfur metabolites known as glucose and alert. These are broken down by the gut’s microflora to release substances that reduce inflammation throughout the body.
Miso – Miso, a past made from fermented soy beans and barley or rice malt which is usually used in Japanese cooking, can be very beneficial to establishing healthy got bacteria. Eating fermented foods usually crowds out unhealthy bacteria to leave more room for good bacteria to grow.
Just be sure to use only organic, soy miso. That way you can be sure it isn’t full of herbicides and pesticides. Genetically modified soy-based miso is also problematic, because it is known to interfere in the endocrine functioning of the body by creating estrogen-mimicking compounds.
Blueberries – This unassuming little fruit has a powerful effect on our gut microbiome. Blueberries are full of antioxidants and vitamin K compounds which improve the immune system and help diversify our gut bacteria.
Bananas – This fruit is high in magnesium and potassium. These minerals help to “make peace” among the bacterial colonies in the gut. This is another reason why eating a banana can help to relieve gas, bloating, and constipation.
Polenta – This corn-based food is a complex-carbohydrate (which means it breaks down slower than refined sugar or refined carbs). Polenta also has some fermented components to it that travel straight to the gut and act as food for multiple strands of healthy gut flora.
Beans, Nuts and Seeds – Beans are one of the best things you can eat to support good gut health. Nuts and seeds come in a close second. Beans help release short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that strengthen your intestinal cells, improve absorption of micronutrients, and help with weight loss. These things all boost immunity, too.
Turmeric and Primrose Oil – These are natural supplements which greatly reduce chronic inflammation, and stress, and can re-establish a healthy gut-brain axis.
Just as there are foods that will support good gut bacteria, and great digestive health, there are foods that will “feed” bad bacteria, lower your immunity, and cause poor health.
Refined Sugars and Simple Carbohydrates – Refined sugars and simple carbohydrates like cakes, cookies, white bread, buns, etc. promote the colonization of your gut by bad bacteria. Refined sugars can also irritate the intestinal walls, and trigger an autoimmune response that leads to allergies, depression, and other diseases.
Artificial Sugars – Artificial sugars like Splenda reduce the good gut flora in your digestive tract. Artificial sweeteners also change the way your body digests sugar, and can even make sugar cravings worse!
Dairy and Gluten – Though everyone is different, with different enzymes in their bodies which can make digesting certain foods very difficult, dairy and gluten are on the “avoid” list if you have gut health concerns.
For Expecting Mothers
The importance of breastfeeding for your baby’s gut health cannot be over emphasized.
Babies are born with an almost “virgin gut.” In other words, their gastrointestinal tracts are practically sterile when they are born. Though babies develop their own gastrointestinal flora when they are still in their mother’s womb, what we feed them in their earliest days can determine their immune system’s health for years to come.
Breast milk is specially designed to populate the digestive tract of infants with “friendly bacteria.”
This is exceedingly important in a time when vaginal births are on the decline in Western societies, as more doctors are scheduling C-sections for women. When a baby is born vaginally, they also are exposed to healthy bacteria which would normally help to jump-start their gut microbiome.
For women who didn’t have a choice but to have a C-section, breastfeeding can replace much of the healthy bacteria a baby needs to fight off foreign pathogens as they grow.
We can’t talk about the microflora of the gut without talking about stress. To start – the gut is a key regulator of stress and neuroinflammation.
Researchers have a hard time disentangling the gut from the brain and nervous system.
As one study explains,
“The microbiota-gut-brain axis is a dynamic matrix of tissues and organs including the brain, glands, gut, immune cells and gastrointestinal microbiota that communicate in a complex multidirectional manner to maintain homeostasis [balance].”
In other words, when we are stressed it affects our gut flora, and when our gut flora is altered, it affects our stress.
This link is so profound, that recent studies have even proven that almost every single case of depression is caused by an inflamed gut. That’s right – every single person taking anti-depressants right now, might drastically change their mental health and to eschew pharmaceutical drugs, if they just changed their diet, thereby altering their gut flora.
Hormone derailment – which is largely what SSRIs (antidepressants) try to fix – is a function of oxidative stress which leads to chronic inflammation in the body.
Experts suggest that once inflammation is active, it is highly self-perpetuating. Inflammatory cytokines travel throughout the body causing oxidating stress to the fragile machinery of the tissues and mitochondria, specifically. This can cause sleep disturbances, decreased social activity, lethargy, and eventually depression – which causes MORE STRESS!
This means that to have a good gut-brain axis, and effective communication between these two parts of our bodies, we need to exercise, eat well, meditate to calm the nervous system, reduce drama in our lives that leads to stress, and allow our guts to heal.
The gut can be healed by supporting good gut bacteria, the microbiota, or microflora that make up the microbiome. When we eat to support the colonization of our guts by healthy bacteria, we can reduce disease, feel happier, and support our immune systems from the inside out.