Living a holistic lifestyle promotes bringing balance into your life for better health. There is an area where you many not have realized that balance is so important, and that’s in your gut! There are bacteria that live in our digestive tracts—what science types often call the gut microbiome. Our bodies play host to trillions of these critters, and they make up a mini-ecosystem that helps us break down the food we eat and absorb its nutrients. That’s not all they do! They also regulate our immune systems, give us energy and protect your gut lining.
Good bacteria in our gut live with us in a mutually beneficial relationship. We need them and they need us. There are also neutral bacteria that are neither beneficial nor harmful. Then there are harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites. They live off of the food in your gut, and are harmful to our health. These harmful organisms usually exist in the gut but are kept at low levels by the good and neutral bacteria. When our body is out of balance, the bad bacteria take advantage of the opportunity and proliferate, potentially causing harm to our bodies.
Functions of good bacteria:
- Producing short chain fatty acids which supply much of your energy
- Producing a number of valuable nutrients notably B vitamins and vitamin K
- Participating in the metabolism of drugs, hormones and carcinogens
- Protecting the you from infection by pathogenic bacteria (through competing for space and production of anti-bacterial substances amongst other methods.)
- Maintaining a healthy intestinal pH
- Enhancing immune function
What goes wrong?
When the amount of friendly bacteria is reduced and the other bad bacteria and pathogens are able to increase their numbers and this is when illness can occur. There are a number of factors that can lead to the bad guys overgrowing and causing problems with your health.
The most important factors are:
- Antibiotic use
- Use of the birth control pill
- Use of other hormones, especially immunosuppressants like steroids
What damage do bad bacteria do?
When the balance between our good and bad gut bacteria gets out of kilter, it can be associated with a number of diseases and conditions – such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel disease (IBD), Diabetes, Obesity, Heart disease, Allergic disorders, Celiac disease, Asthma and certain Cancers.
What kind of imbalance do you have?
- SIBO (Small inestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) Occurs when bacteria normally found in the large intestine travel up to the small intestine, where they overgrow and add to the relatively small number of bacteria already present there. This abnormal overgrowth of bacteria can result in poor absorption of nutrients from our digested food and the breakdown of certain carbohydrates before the body is ready, causing GI symptoms such as upper GI gas and bloating after a meal.
- Candidiasis: Specific overgrowth of the yeast candida albicans and similar species is a special kind of gut imbalance. These organisms, which are part of the normal flora of the gut, mouth and vaginal mucus membranes can become opportunistic pathogens during overgrowth. This is usually the consequence of chronic antibiotic use, oral contraceptive use, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), high consumption of sugars/white flour/pastries, alcohol use, or immune system suppression (caused by stress, infection, aging or other imbalances).
- Parasites: Parasitic infections are, unfortunately, more common than we would like to think. Parasites can be microscopic organisms (amoebas) or very large organisms (worms). Detecting and treating parasites is vital. Treatment might include pharmaceutical anti-parasitics, potent natural anti-parasitic supplements, high potency comprehensive probiotic supplements, and nutrients to support liver and immune health.
Tests for an imbalance
These tests include:
Breath hydrogen tests: used to test for an imbalance in the small intestines, or SIBO; glucose is consumed and levels of hydrogen in the breath are tested; pathogenic bacteria break down glucose and release hydrogen gases, and therefore levels of hydrogen.
Stool analysis: a stool sample is taken and analyzed for indications of bacterial imbalance.
Genova IP test for leaky gut: a non-metabolized sugar is ingested and measured in the urine to evaluate how much sugar, if any, is able to permeate through the intestinal lining
Candida testing: includes blood tests for IgG, IgA, and IgM, antibodies that respond to Candida yeast bacteria, and a urine test that detects tartaric acid, a waste product of candida
U-Biome tests X 2 (start and end): using swabs from the mouth, nose, gut, genitals, and skin, the microbiome is sequenced, offering a picture of the bacteria species that inhabit the body
Zonulin testing: circulating zonulin (a protein that regulates cellular tight junctions and therefore has implications on intestinal permeability) levels are tested in the blood; high levels infer intestinal permeability.
The treatment for any imbalance in the gut is the 5 R approach:
First, identify and remove the factors that may be contributing to your symptoms, including:
- Stress: Stress can impair your digestion and absorption—particularly if you eat too quickly, too much, or at varying times of day.
- Allergenic foods: Develop an elimination diet plan with your physician or nutritionist to help determine if you have food allergies. The diet involves removing potentially allergenic foods for a length of time (the length of the elimination phase will vary based on your individual needs and protocol), then reintroducing the foods, one at a time, every two days, while monitoring for symptoms. Potentially allergenic foods include processed foods, oranges, dairy, eggs, corn, grains with gluten, pork, shellfish, beef, veal, soy, peanuts, alcohol, coffee, soda, refined sugar, chocolate, ketchup, and most other condiments.
- Pathogens: Bacterial and yeast overgrowth, viruses, fungi, parasites, and other toxic substances are common contributors to gut-related symptoms. A variety of tests, medications, and dietary and home remedies are available through your physician or a functional medicine physician to identify and remove pathogens.
Second, replace stomach acid and digestive enzymes, which may be lacking in your gut. Lab tests, such as fat absorption tests and gastric analysis, can help determine what factors need to be replaced. Work with your physician to determine supplements that could support your healing, such as:
- Digestive enzymes, including protease, lipase, amylase, and pepsin
- Hydrochloric acid
Third, for six to twelve weeks, reinoculate your gut with good bacteria to help regain a healthy microflora balance. Intestinal microflora are microorganisms that live in our gut and are helpful in aiding digestion and nutrient absorption. This can be accomplished with a variety of foods and supplements:
- Fermented foods: These foods include tea, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha.
- Prebiotics: These are non-digestible plant components that nourish the body’s microflora. They include:
- Probiotics: Probiotics are live bacteria that aid the digestive process and keep our gut health and intestinal function strong. Probiotics are available as supplements; purchase a refrigerated brand with live, mixed flora such as lactobacillus and acidophilus.
Fourth, repair the lining of your gut through good nutrition—this can take up to six months. In addition to an allergen-free, healthy diet, a variety of foods and supplements may help to reduce inflammation and support cell growth in your digestive tract, such as:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin B5
- Vitamin D
This is where lifestyle really comes into play. It is important to address the external stressors in your life. With practices like yoga, meditation, deep breathing, good sleep and other mindfulness-based practices, you can help reduce stress that will protect your gut and subsequently, your entire body.