Many of us are aware there’s a population of bacteria living inside our gut. What may take you by surprise is the sheer number and variety of these bacteria and the fact that your population of bacteria is completely unique to you. As if this wasn’t enough, these bacteria are like a complicated chemical factory, pumping out substances which affect cells all over the body.
These bacteria, which make up your personal microbiome, are one of the most important determinants of your overall health.
In this article we’ll have a look at their influence on your body.
It’s estimated the number of bacteria living in your gut outnumber the cells in your body by at least ten to one, meaning we’re only 10% human. Your microbiome can be comprised of over 2000 different species, the exact makeup of this population of bacteria being different for each of us. This is because your microbiome is not only influenced by your genetics, but also by your past life experiences, food choices, lifestyle, medication use and even your mood.
Even if you were aware of your microbiome – and most of us don’t pay it any heed on a daily basis – you may be surprised at the extent it can influence your health. It was originally believed our microbiome affected only the functioning of our digestive system, but recent research has discovered its influence extends far wider than this. This is because of those chemical messengers we mentioned earlier, which can influence a whole range of body processes seemingly unconnected with the digestive system.
These chemical messengers differ according to what species of bacteria predominate in your microbiome.
Ideally we’ll have a preponderance of bacteria which are beneficial to us their host, otherwise known as friendly bacteria.
These include those belonging to the species Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Friendly bacteria produce substances called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which nourish the cells lining of the gut. This is important as our intestinal lining interacts with our immune system, the majority of which sits in our digestive system.
If the gut lining becomes inflamed it will lose its integrity and allow substances such as toxins and incompletely digested food access to the bloodstream which can the provoke an immune response.
Increased intestinal permeability is now being recognised as a factor in many chronic diseases, particularly auto-immune conditions.
SCFAs can be absorbed into the bloodstream and also influence how sensitive we are to insulin, and therefore how effectively we can regulate our blood sugar. They can also encourage the body to burn off fat, so maintaining a healthy weight, as well as regulate cholesterol levels.
Certain SCFAs are also important to our health because they can reduce chronic inflammation. Although acute inflammation is a normal and helpful response to injury or trauma, inflammation which is ongoing is at the heart of the development of many chronic diseases.
Our friendly bacteria even manufacture vitamins such as certain B vitamins for us.
Within every population of friendly bacteria, each species produces different chemical messengers, which is the reason why a varied population of bacteria is important for optimum health.
Unfortunately, what often happens is pathogenic or disease-causing bacteria end up populating the gut at the expense of the friendly ones.
Friendly and unfriendly bacteria each prefer a slightly different environment so once one type gains the upper hand it tends to produce the environment it thrives in.
Our microbiome should be confined largely to the large intestine or colon. Sometimes bacteria will establish themselves in the small intestine, a condition called small intestinal bacteria overgrowth, or SIBO. This causes symptoms such as belching, wind and bloating after eating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
Many nutritional and lifestyle factors can adversely affect the microbiome such as antibiotics, sugar, stress, too little sleep and alcohol, but there are also many ways we can nurture our microbiome. One important factor is ensuring we consume whole plant-based foods containing plenty of fibre. This provides a food source for the friendly bacteria.
We’ve known for years eating fibre is linked to better health, but it’s only recently we’ve begun to understand it’s largely due to the role played by our beneficial bacteria and the messengers they produce.
Eating plenty of plant-based foods also encourages our digestion to move at a healthy rate. This is important because constipation can encourage the type of environment preferred by pathogenic bacteria.
Functional Medicine practitioners understand the importance of re-establishing a healthy microbiome. Functional testing can be useful to examine the makeup of your gut bacteria, as well as the chemical messengers they are producing to assess how your personal microbiome is affecting your health.
If you would like to improve your gut health in just 30 days, book an appointment.
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