How Your Gut Bacteria Influences Your Health
Gut health is all the rage right now and rightly so, the good bacteria in and on your body is critical for our health and well-being.
I LOVE the gut microflora. We have a seriously fascinating relationship with them; for example your skin, hormones, liver health, thyroid function, mental state and energy level may all be a reflection of your gut health.
In celebration of recently completing a masterclass in gut health called Healthy Gut, I wanted to share an overview about the microbiota, what it actually is along with the function and role it plays within us.
Microbiota vs Microbiome
Firstly, the microbiota, microflora, gut bacteria, good bacteria, probiotics and intestinal flora all reference the same thing, the living community: the bacteria, fungi, viruses, archaea, and eukaryotes that live within and on us.
Secondly, there is a slight difference between the microbiome and microbiota, although they are often interchanged. The microbiome is the genetic expression of these microflora. Each area of the body: intestines, respiratory tract, skin, reproductive organs, urinary system and mouth all have separate microbiomes.
In other words, the microbiota are the actual guys doing the dirty work and the microbiome is their set of genes. Interestingly, every person has their own microbiome touted as the ‘microbial fingerprint’.
The Quick and Dirty About the Microbiota
The microbiota is made of bacteria but there is nothing dirty about it. In fact, they are a huge reason how and why your immune system works.
As I previously mentioned, you will find bacteria throughout the body, in the mouth, gastrointestinal tract, skin, reproductive organs, urinary system and respiratory tact. Today we are talking about the gut microflora located in the digestive tract starting at the top (mouth) and continuing to the bottom (colon).
Descending from the stomach into the small intestines and finally to the large intestines the amount of good bacteria will increase. Additionally, the diversity or different strains will also rise as you travel into the large intestine.
- Old research used to suggest that there was 10 times the amount of bacteria cells to human cells (1). However, new research is showing that a more accurate and realistic number is 1:1 human to bacterial cells (which is still incredible to me!) (2) (3).
- Your poop is made of roughly 50% bacteria (4), this is what I call strength in numbers.
- The old adage that “more is better” holds some truth when it comes to the gut microflora. It appears that the greater the diversity, or different types of bacteria in your system the better (5).
- New research is showing that there is a connection between the bacteria – what types, the level of diversity, and their numbers in correlation to health or disease (6). Furthermore, there is research showing a connection between gut microbiota imbalance and obesity, cardiovascular health, allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, mood and behavioural disorders (7).
- The gut microbiota is mature by the age of 2. TWO! However, it is never too late to support the gut.
- A newer procedure called fecal transplant is showing promise in restoring the health of individuals with a compromised gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is just as it sounds – a healthy donor donates their fecal matter to be transplanted into a compromised individual, to help restore and recolonize their GI tract. In so doing, they would be transplanting their good bacteria into the individual, assisting in bringing back their gut health.
Dysbiosis: A Battle Between Good vs Bad
A healthy gut ecosystem contains both good and bad bacteria. It is when dysbiosis or an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria occur that many issues or symptoms appear such as bloating, fatigue, bad breath, depression and hormonal issues.
It is important to note that sometimes these ‘bad’ bacteria actually do helpful and necessary things if their numbers are kept in check by the good bacteria; the problem arises when their numbers get out of hand, in this case, more is not better.
Function and Role of Good Bacteria
Let’s start the conversation about gut health and how the viability of our gut and the microbiota that live in us have so much more connection to our own health and vitality than most people realize.
I will be highlighting a few systems in the body in relation to the microflora’s role, function and benefit we have to them.
- The digestive system
- The liver
- The immune system
- The cardiovascular system
- The thyroid
- The brain
Gut Health and the Digestive System
The microbiota are an essential part of the digestive system. For example, they aid in digestion, nourishing the actual cells within the digestive tract and help us utilize the foods we’ve eaten.
- improves mineral absorption
- are part of carbohydrate metabolism including glucose
- with this in mind, consider its connection with blood sugar balance
- Blood sugar imbalance is linked to type 2 diabetes, PCOS, low energy, binging/cravings, obesity, concentration and so much more.
- ferment carbohydrates, specifically indigestible fibre to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA).
- SCFA – are a fuel source for the cells of the colon, heart and whole body
- furthermore, they can be highly anti-inflammatory
- helps to keeps intestinal cells healthy
- increase intestinal motility (good poops), secretion and absorption (uptake of the nutrients that were digested)
- are part of regulating appetite and fullness
- can help regulate diarrhea and constipation
- help to keep the cells in the intestines closed and tight – prevents leaky gut
- stimulate the production of mucus – essential for a healthy intestinal tract and creates a barrier against pathogens
- digest and alter phytonutrients into usable and beneficial forms for us
- For instance, the good bacteria must first interact with grape skin extracts before we can gain their benefits such as utilize the antioxidant
Gut Health and the Liver
Although the liver is part of the digestive system it deserves its own category because of the interrelationship to the gut microflora; one does not work well without the other.
Furthermore, there is a continual bidirectional communication between the gut and liver that allows this relationship to occur.
- help the liver with glucose and glycogen metabolism
- stimulates enzyme production in the liver for detoxification
- helps prevent and heal fatty liver
- can detox out chemicals and heavy metals before they enter the bloodstream, including eliminating toxins produced by bad bacteria, alleviating the burden on the liver
- directly helps the function of phase I and phase II liver detoxification pathways
- removes bile from toxins allowing the bile to be absorbed back in the liver where it should return to, and the toxins to be excreted
Gut Health and the Immune System
The immune system and gut bacteria are intertwined, simply put their health reflects our health.
- regulates and primes the immune system throughout life, in fact 70 – 80% of our immune system lives within our gut
- reduces inflammation
- inflammation is linked to such things as endometriosis, menstrual cramps, muscle and joint pain, digestive issues, asthma, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s, leaky gut, arthritis, cancer, lupus and other autoimmune diseases
- provide non-immunological protection against infection, in other words the immune system is not involved
- stimulates the immune system to mature at birth
- prevents the growth of harmful bacteria
- directly interacts with the intestinal tissue, thereby allowing communication with the body and immune system
- creates immune tolerance, or the ability of our body to tolerate our own self and foods
- For example, baby in the womb has immune tolerance, gut bacteria has immune tolerance and, we should have immune tolerance to our own tissue. As opposed to an auto-immune disease when the body sees itself as a foreign entity and attacks.
Gut bacteria must be a consideration when there is a lack of immune tolerance such as in allergies and sensitivities to both food and environmental factors, along with autoimmune diseases.
Gut Health and the Cardiovascular System
The link between cardiovascular health and the gut bacteria isn’t yet a hot topic but there is some info to consider and appreciate.
- helps modulate cholesterol levels
- helps to lower blood pressure
- increases cardiac output and oxygen consumption
- reduce inflammation and consequently lowers potential damage to blood vessels and the heart
Gut Health and Hormones
In this section I am mainly speaking towards sex hormones: estrogen, testosterone and progesterone in relation to the gut bacteria. This list may look small compared to previous lists but don’t let the size fool you.
A healthy microflora ecosystem is essential for balanced hormones, without it our body wouldn’t be able to support the liver or endocrine system (the organs that make the hormones).
Additionally, when dysbiosis occurs, these bad bacteria continually break important enzymatic bonds. When these bonds break, instead of pooping out the processed estrogen metabolite the body reabsorbs it contributing to hormonal imbalances.
- are essential for processing and neutralizing hormones via phase I and II liver detox pathways
- ensures that processed estrogen metabolites leave the body via phase III detox – from the time the metabolites leave the liver to them being pooped out.
Gut Health and the Thyroid
The thyroid, an often overlooked system especially in relation to gut health.
- help ensure the body is maximizing nutrient availability – many times the thyroid isn’t functioning properly simply from lack of available nutrients such as iodine and selenium
- converts 20% of T4 (inactive thyroid hormone) to T3 (active form of thyroid hormone)
- support the liver to do it’s job of converting most of the inactive T4 hormone to active T3 hormone
- Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune disease that has a direct connection to immune tolerance and the gut bacteria
Gut Health and Bones
Younger and younger women are experiencing lack of bone health, possibly because of the link with poor gut health and hormonal issues.
- aids in mineral absorption, essential for making new bones
- can increase bone density by stimulating cells that form the bones
- help to reduce inflammation which in turn supports bone formation
- inflammation = increased rate of bone breaking down coupled with a decreased rate of bone formation aka bone is breaking down at a faster rate than it can rebuild
Gut Health and the Adrenals
We couldn’t talk about gut health without discussing the role and interrelationship that the bacteria have with the adrenals.
- helps control cortisol and the stress response
- contributes to an optimized endocrine system
- helps to modulate the stress response, which helps keep progesterone as progesterone instead of converting it to cortisol
Gut Health and the Brain
The brain – gut connection is one what is truly fascinating and empowering. The enteric nervous system, often called the second brain, is a division of the nervous system. It governs the GI system thus providing a direct connection between the gut and the brain.
The enteric nervous system has the capability to work independently of both the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation and digestion). However, most often there is a continual communication between these parts of the nervous system.
There is some up and coming research between gut health and brain diseases such as in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s suggesting that an imbalance in the gut may a factor for setting the stage for these conditions to occur later in life.
Similarly, we can see the interplay of the gut-brain connection in IBS theories with miscommunication between the brain and gastrointestinal tract.
- increase and regulate serotonin production: 80 – 90% of serotonin is made in the gut
- helps with pain reduction by dulling sensory nerves (child birth anyone?!)
- aids in cognitive function
- may produce antidepressant effects
- sends signals from the gut to the brain via neurotransmitters and hormones that affect our behaviour, mood, and memory
- coupled with prebiotics have the capacity to reduce anxiety
I am excited to open up the conversation with you about the connection between gut health and the health of the whole body.
In the future I look forward to expanding on these topics in more detail. Let’s connect to see if there is any direction you want me to pursue first. For example, going into more detailed signs and symptoms that you may have a gut imbalance, how to support your good bacteria, research connecting disease and gut health, or more in-depth convo about hormones, thyroid or the liver and gut health?
There is no way around it, we need them and they need us, a prime example of a harmonious relationship.