From the day we’re born, literally a few hours after the onset of life, bacteria begins to grow within our gut. Over time, this “flora” becomes more diverse, complex and immense. Soon, it becomes one of the most vital and powerful forces for defining not only our gastrointestinal (GI) health, but our entire physical well-being.
We all eat and digest food, and go to the bathroom – hopefully each and every day. When we do, bacteria is in action. Similar to your own fingerprint, all of us have unique and different types and proportions of gut bacteria, both of the good and bad variety. It populates our digestive system, inhabits our 30-foot long GI tract and grabs hold of our intestines and colon. Most live in the large intestine and, in fact, a staggering four pounds of approximately 100 trillion bacteria cells can live there at a time, with up to 500 different types of microbe species. But it’s up to us, in many ways, to take care of our beneficial bacteria and ensure it plays its intended function for the body’s digestive and immune systems.
The many strains and species of good bacteria in our digestive tract assist the body in digestion, vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, proper healing and protection from the overgrowth of disease-causing organisms. No doubt about it, bacteria is key to achieving and maintaining optimal gut health and overall wellness.
Gut flora – essential for fighting illness and proper nutritional intake
Generally speaking, the health of your GI system is determined by the level and types of bacteria in your digestive tract. Ideally, a healthy person has a ratio of about 80-85 percent good and neutral bacteria, leaving about 15-20 percent “bad” bacteria. If the critical balance is disrupted and harmful bacteria and parasites overgrow, you will notice a dramatic difference in the way that you feel. For one thing, your ability to fight off infections and illnesses will be inhibited. The human immune system relies upon good bacteria to regulate and strengthen. Typically, if you have frequent digestive discomfort, the odds are you have an issue with the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.
Healthy gut bacteria produces byproducts that keep the intestinal lining strong. Compromised bacteria and changes in gut flora can weaken your immune system, causing inflammation and other symptoms both in the GI system and throughout the whole body. It can prompt the onset of Irritable Bowel System (IBS), one of the most common GI disorders, and Clostridium difficile, more commonly known as C. diff. This bacterium can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon.
Though lesser known, another important benefit of optimal gut flora activity is its ability to break down nutrition. About 15-20 percent of our calories are degraded by bacteria in the gut. In the absence of optimal gut flora, these calories do not process properly and get absorbed as they should into nutrition. In fact, there are theories that people who suffer from obesity have bacteria that is simply too efficient. With these people, bacteria breaks down upwards of 25 percent of their calories and, thus, weight gain is almost inevitable.
One other beneficial value derived from our friendly gut microbes is the way they synthesize many of the body’s minerals, nutrients and vitamins. This includes folic acid and Vitamin K, a main source for regulating clotting within the body.
Your gut is often called a “second brain” – and for good reason
It’s amazing to think about how inter-connected our physical and mental states truly are. How many times has your anxiety ramped up and the next thing you know, your stomach hurts? Perhaps, it’s the opposite scenario, whereas you have a bout with diarrhea or constipation and the next thing you know you’re nervous about getting through the work day.
The gut has its own nervous system, known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), which lines the entirety of our GI tract with hundreds of millions of nerve cells. It communicates directly with the brain through neurotransmitters and signals the body’s Central Nervous System (CNS). This “highway” of chemical messages racing back and forth between the gut and brain impacts the entire body, from the way we feel to even certain cognitive functions. When the gut is irritated or inflamed, the ENS signals the CNS, which then can trigger mood changes.
I know all too well how powerful the mind/gut connection can be. For over 10 years, I’ve had acid reflux controlled by medication. Or, so I thought. Last year, as required every decade, I was studying to re-take my GI board exams. My acid reflux acted up terribly. I couldn’t eat or sleep, with symptoms exacerbated every time I thought about the tests. Finally, I went in for medical testing only to receive results proving I didn’t have nearly as much acid reflux in my esophagus as I thought. It was all about the stress related to my impending boards. Fast forward, I passed the exams, my symptoms completely disappeared, and I even stopped taking antacids completely. I see the exact same type of scenario happen with my patients all the time.
Restoring proper bacteria balance through proper diet, probiotics and good old common sense
So many factors can either elevate or wreak havoc on our digestive systems. But you can restore and strike the right balance of your bacteria, and improve the full health of your GI system, through somewhat simple measures. Perhaps most important is clean, proper nutritional intake. Probably 75 percent of the symptoms and diseases we see can be controlled through diet. However, with the diet of the average American filled with processed, sugary and fatty foods, the gut can become damaged over time and less functional, becoming a safe haven for bad bacteria to grow exponentially.
If you consume more fruit, vegetables and other plant-based foods – it’s what your gut ultimately craves – you will build up protective good bacteria and help your gut health. You can also take probiotics in pill form, in yogurt cultured with gut-specific probiotics, probiotic drinks or consume prebiotics that act as the food source for good bacteria such as raw garlic, bananas, wheat bran, raw asparagus, apples and flax seed.
Unless medically necessary, I don’t recommend that you take antibiotics. Most broad-spectrum antibiotics kill off good gut bacteria along with the bad, altering your flora in a way that it just doesn’t come back the same. Too many people take an antibiotic when they have a viral illness that would resolve over time on its own. As well, avoid colonic cleanses. There’s no health benefit and if you don’t allow fecal stream to enter the colon, you’re doing more harm than good.
The gut and mind connection – still many unknowns
The connection between gut health and overall wellness has been known for some time. The impact of gut bacteria on the entire body and the gut / mind connections is a complex and influential subject. In some ways, it’s still a mystery and new studies take shape fueling new theories all the time. But at the core, the “second brain” in your gut and the bacteria deep within is a powerful force for unlocking connections between your digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.
Jared Gold, MD is board-certified in both gastroenterology and internal medicine. He is affiliated with CentraState Medical Center and has been in practice in Monmouth County for over10 years. With offices in Marlboro, Howell and Old Bridge as part of Advanced Gastroenterology Associates, Dr. Gold can be reached by calling 866-CENTRA7.