Going with your gut

26 June, 2014

I believe in trusting your gut – and I’m not just talking about intuition.

Our guts are remarkable. They comprise a nervous system every bit as sensitive and sophisticated as your brain – which is why the gut is sometimes referred to as the ‘second brain’.

In the last decade or so scientists have discovered that each brain influences the other and imbalance in one can mean imbalance in the other.

There is evidence to suggest that the “cross-talk” between bacteria in our gut and our brain plays an important role in the development of psychiatric illness, intestinal diseases and probably other health problems including obesity.

The gut is also home to a huge variety of bacteria. As many as 100 different species live in our guts – accounting for between 1-3% of our total body weight. These bacteria are not foreign invaders but intimate friends.

Treating them with respect could literally save your life.

I was reminded of this when reading about a new study looking at the link between type-2 diabetes and obesity and the type of bacteria in our guts. The Turkish researchers found that people with diabetes or who were overweight had lower proportions of some bacterial types – Firmicutes, Bifidobacteria, and Clostridium Leptum – than healthy people. The problem can be self-reinforcing since lower levels of these god bacteria can allow other types of bacteria – which have their own effects on health, to dominate.

This is not the first study to show this. Last year a European study found that a low diversity of gut bacteria was linked to heart disease and obesity.

A couple years ago a study in the journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice showed that microorganisms in the human gastrointestinal tract form an intricate, living fabric of natural controls affecting body weight, energy, and nutrition.

Getting the balance right begins at birth (and with breastfeeding). Indeed the way we arrive into the world may have a profound influence.

At the moment of birth, the vagina is dominated by a pair of bacterial species – Lactobacillus and Prevotella – necessary for good gut health. These species dominate in children born this way. In contrast, infants delivered by caesarean typically show dominant microbial communities associated with the skin, including Staphylococcus, Corynebacterium, and Propionibacterium. This may well affect an infant’s subsequent development and health, particularly in terms of susceptibility to allergens and pathogens.

Almost 70% of the immune system is found in the gut. So whatever your age, keeping your gut healthy is vital.

To do this requires a balance between the good and bacteria native to the human gut. In a healthy gut, the ‘good’ usually outnumber the bad; and when they flourish they also help to do a multitude of tasks including: fermenting organic acids into glucose, lowering blood cholesterol, synthesising vitamins, breaking down the enzymes and fibres in food and boosting the immune system.

Lack of variety in our diets means lack of this essential variety in our gut bacteria. Lack of exercise also has an effect. In a recent study exercise was shown to improve the quality of gut bacteria, which in turn can improve digestion and overall health.

The opposite is also true. Studies have shown for example that a good balance of gut flora can help with weight control. A healthy and diverse microbiome can even regulate happiness and emotional stability.

But our diets must also be clean as well as varied. Secondhand antibiotics via meat, dairy, eggs and even tap water will all take their toll on health.

Consuming foods laced with GMOs may end up being another detrimental hit to our microbiome. GMOs are pesticide plants – designed to absorb high amounts of pesticides sprayed on and around them. The pesticide of choice, glyphosate is also registered as an antibiotic.

When we eat these plants we are ingesting something that has the potential to profoundly damage out gut flora.

Some researchers in the US have found correlations between the rise in GMO consumption and the rise in diseases such as autism, Alzheimer’s, obesity, low serotonin and tryptophan (linked to depression, mental illnesses, and increased violence), Parkinson’s, birth defects, Crohn’s and colitis, cancer and diabetes.

While the research has not progressed past a correlative stage yet it is intriguing and may yet prove to be yet another devastating effect of our senseless embrace of GMOs.

The take home message? We’ve got to clean up our national food systems. But while we are waiting for that to happen, for health’s sake, we’ve got to be responsible for cleaning up our own kitchens as well.

Pat Thomas, Editor