Feed and Grow Your Friendly (Gut) Flora
By Jan Cullinane. Previously published in the 2016 Winter Issue.
Tom M.’s elderly dad was treated for pneumonia. Following his hospital stay, the 95-year-old Long Islander was placed in a rehab center for additional convalescence and contracted a nasty bacterial infection, C. diff (Clostridium difficile). This bacterium produces a toxin that affects the intestinal lining. Tom’s dad experienced weight loss, weakness to the point of being unable to stand, chronic diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Antibiotics didn’t do the trick, but a fecal transplant from a healthy donor did. Seven months later, this grandfather was dancing at his granddaughter’s wedding! Aside from the “ick” factor of a fecal transplant, this anecdote points to the importance of the microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that live in our gut.
If we gathered these microorganisms, sometimes called our flora, biome, or microbiota, from our gut, they would weigh three to six pounds. The number and variety of “friendly” microbes play a huge role in maintaining our health. What can we do to ensure that our “friendly”
microbes thrive and grow?
Where did our gut biome come from and what does it do?
Our unique biome started to form when we were in the uterus. It was previously thought that the womb was a sterile environment, but in 2014 it was discovered that the placenta harbors microorganisms that pass to the fetus. Babies traveling through the vaginal canal pick up the mother’s microbes; those delivered by C-section pick up microbes from the mother’s skin. Once born, we rapidly populate our intestinal flora from the environment, including “creamy bacterial soup” from our mothers if we were breast-fed. Although disease-causing microbes live in our gut, the “good” microbes usually keep them in check.
The consequences of not tending to our gut garden are sobering. Researchers found mice can become obese by giving them gut bacteria from obese mice. A Danish study found that a low variety of microbes in humans can result in more inflammation, weight gain, and higher insulin resistance. Ongoing studies are investigating links to the gut biome and areas as diverse as sleep, anxiety, celiac disease (an aside: two of my children have this), Parkinson’s disease, and autism.
The connection between our brain and gut is well-established, which is why we often refer to the “brain in the gut” or our “second brain.” It’s why we—unconsciously—use the expression “going with our gut.”
Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Supplements
Based on current research, what are the good microbes, where can we get them, and how do we feed them? Two of the best-known beneficial bacteria are in the genus Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. They are often called “probiotics,” and you can increase their numbers through either food or pills.
Food sources of probiotics include yogurt (look for this phrase: “contains live and active cultures”), sauerkraut (should be unpasteurized and refrigerated so probiotics aren’t destroyed), Acidophilus milk and buttermilk (don’t heat the milk—it will destroy the bacteria), Miso soup, olives in brine (the brine allows the bacteria to grow), and sour pickles (get naturally fermented pickles without the use of vinegar).
If you want your probiotics in a pill, there are a number of supplements that have been evaluated by independent labs. Of course, different probiotics have different functions. Three supplements to consider: Culturelle Digestive Health, Align, and Dr. Mercola Complete Probiotics. A fourth probiotic in pill form is Florastor, comprised of a specific yeast called Saccharomyces boulardii lyo rather than a combination of bacteria. Although considered safe, probiotics are not regulated by the FDA since they are considered dietary supplements and not drugs.
What if you don’t want to ingest friendly probiotics directly, but you want to feed your gut biome foods that will encourage the healthy microbes to grow? These foods are called prebiotics—they are plant fibers we can’t digest, but our gut biome loves to munch on them! Here are some foods that fit the bill: bananas, beans (white, black, navy), tomatoes, oatmeal, lentils, raw asparagus, and cooked wheat flour. Conversely, what do the “bad” microbes like as a food source? The answer is sugar and processed foods (I can frequently hear mine screaming for a piece of chocolate cake).
Circling back to fecal transplants (traced to the 4th century in China), receiving a dose of a healthy donor’s gut biome (through a colonoscopy, nasal tube, enema, or frozen capsule of fecal microbiota) is 90 to 95 percent effective in curing C. diff. Research is being conducted on other applications for fecal transplants as well. The secrets of the microscopic garden in our gut are just beginning to be revealed.
We’ve heard the expression, “Change your brain, change your life.” It’s time to add a new one to the lexicon: “Change your gut biome, change your health.”
The goal is to cultivate and maintain an extensive garden of helpful gut flora, which perform vital roles, including:
•Helping digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates
•Increasing absorption of minerals including iron, calcium, and magnesium
•Keeping disease-causing and gas-producing organisms in check by crowding them out
•Regulating bowel activity
•Synthesizing Vitamin K and “B” group Vitamins
•Producing substances used by our nerve cells such as dopamine and serotonin
•Facilitating communications between our brain and gut