Over 400 species, 100 trillion microorganisms and three pounds of bacteria in make up your digestive tract. This giant ecosystem helps you digest food, regulate hormones, excrete toxins and produce vitamins and other healing compounds. Your gut is what keeps you healthy.
The microorganisms who reside in your gut are commonly referred to as microbes. The whole system is called your microbiome.
In a perfect world, we nourish our microbiome with micronutrients from the food we eat to help them proliferate and thrive. In turn, our microbiome helps us digest food, produce vitamins and perform normal bodily functions.
Suffice it to say, your gut’s role in maintaining your health can’t be stressed enough. As you’ll read below, when things go awry, leaky gut syndrome is usually involved.
Though we’ve made recent breakthroughs in understanding gut flora and its role in our health, we still know relatively little. There’s a ton of exciting research going on as I write this -- many are predicting that gut research will dominate mainstream news over the next five years.
Here’s what we know. A healthy microbiome protects us from disease and infection, aids in digestion and absorption of food, regulates metabolism, produces hormones and much more. Woah!
You might be asking: what makes a healthy microbiome? Well that is a loaded question my friend. But I have good news for you!
This may be the only case where each of us are truly a special snowflake. We inherit a human genome from our parents, but each of the 100+ trillion microbes in our gut has it’s own genome as well.
Research tells us that a healthy functioning microbiome is comprised of a diverse range of bacteria or gut flora. For the purpose of this article, I’ll use both terms. Our microbiome changes throughout life for better or for worse based on lifestyle.
While you can directly change your gut flora through lifestyle choices, some things are out of your control with respect to your gut.
For example, C-section versus vaginal births directly impacts the development of your gut bacteria.
If you are born via C-section, you were not seeded with all the good bacteria found in your mother’s birth canal.
Your mother loves you very much and cares about your health more than you know. However, this effect cascades if you were fed formula instead of breast milk. Although in the last five years, baby formula quality has increased to where they are most likely safe.
As you can see, we’re feeding our gut flora throughout our life. The long term health implications are massive!
There’s evidence suggesting that autoimmune conditions (like rheumatoid arthritis, crohn's, type 1 diabetes, thyroid issues), depression and autism are all related to leaky gut syndrome and dysfunctional gut bacteria.
Obesity is also directly related.
Gut bacteria, calories and fat storage
Your microbiome extracts energy from the food you consume. Depending on the makeup of your gut bacteria, you’ll either be protected or predisposed toward obesity.
The composition of gut flora greatly differs between lean and obese people. Translation: your gut flora affects whether you’ll have an easy time keeping weight off or whether you gain weight by simply looking at a donut.
Research is directly linking gut bacteria and obesity. The thought is that the gut bacteria found in obese people is able to harvest more energy (or calories) from food. Crazy right? This harvesting effect is exacerbated by systemic inflammation.
These same gut microbes can also impair glucose tolerance irrespective of whether they predispose you toward obesity. This is how gut dysbiosis or leaky gut leads to type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
The take home point is that if your microbiome is out of balance through lifestyle factors and a poor diet, you’ll store more fat than you would probably like to.
So what disrupts your gut flora?
Think of your microbiome as a garden. You have to constantly nourish it with the right inputs to ensure your gut stays happy.
Our gut naturally changes to adapt to the environment we place it in. So as we age, travel to new places or take drugs, the compositions of our gut changes.
Here are some things that can compromise your gut flora. In some cases they can destroy all the hard work you and your gut have done in building the up the right bacteria.
- NSAIDs: aspirin, ibuprofen (think advil), acetaminophen and naproxen
- Antibiotics, birth control, antacids, steroids
- Chronic inflammation from stress or infection
- Eating foods you may be allergic to, and perhaps not know it. This includes dairy, gluten, alcohol, among others
- Eating processed foods high in hydrogenated oils, vegetable oils and refined carbohydrates
- A lack of fermentable (plant) fibers in your diet
Antibiotics in particular can kill off much of the desirable bacteria in your gut. And unfortunately, this bacteria will not grow back on it’s own.
Remember that antibiotics not only come from your doctor, but also from eating low quality meat from factory farms. These farms pump your meat full of antibiotics to ward off infection when they’re raising these poor animals.
NSAIDs are still a silent gut killer, with many doctors prescribing them without even mentioning the effects they have on our guts.
I’ve seen it in all levels of sport from weekend warriors to Olympians popping advil to get through games.
The above cause states of dysbiosis in our gut. A lack of good gut bacteria leads to chronic inflammation which compromises the tight composition of our intestinal wall.
In short, our western lifestyle can put our gut at risk. Over time as stress increases and our repeated exposure harmful foods adds up, our gut takes the burden.
Without knowing it, we ask a lot of our poor gut. And there is no biological free lunch.
Enter Leaky Gut Syndrome
image credit: BallenaBlanca
Leaky gut syndrome is of particular importance to the onset of autoimmune disease. Your gut has mucosal lining which is designed to protect you from infection.
In a perfect world, the cells that line your gut are tightly knit like a cotton shirt. But our guts rarely live in such harmony.
Stress, particularly from a lifestyle dominated by work, bad food and excessive exercise causes this lining to break down and become permeable. In case you’re keeping score at home, this is not a good thing.
Leaky gut syndrome is the result. Your gut becomes porous which leads to partially digested proteins leaking through your small intestine into your bloodstream.
Now your body freaks out because it sees these proteins in your blood as dangerous. Your body mounts an inflammatory immune response attacking them.
In the long term, this immune response can lead to a host of autoimmune conditions including celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
It’s important to note that your body treats all incoming stresses the same. Think of your daily stress as a bucket, there is only a finite of amount you can take (or fill) before things start to break.
I repeat: your body does not differentiate stressors. The stress from your daily workout, the anxiety you get thinking about tomorrow’s presentation, the stress from your repeated diet attempts… it all fills your stress bucket.
Repeated stress causes inflammation in varying degrees. Sprinkle in some poor food choices and you have a recipe for leaky gut and the subsequent chronic inflammatory issues.
If you leave your body chronically inflamed for too long then autoimmunity will result.
So far we’ve talked about issues pertaining to gut function or lack thereof, but it’s important to point out that leaky gut is a tricky demon. Digestive issues are rarely the result of leaky gut.
The gut brain connection
The consensus among people smarter than myself is that we have a second brain residing in our gut. If you’ve felt butterflies in your stomach, then I’m sure can personally attest to the importance of the gut in regulating mood and anxiety.
Mood disorders is of particular interest to me as I’ve experienced several bouts of depression.
Your gut directly affects your mood via the vagus nerve. This is the longest cranial nerve in your body. It travels from your brain down your neck and thorax into your gut.
The vagus nerve conducts unconscious body mechanisms like controlling your heart rate and the digestion of food.
Now that we know what connects our two brains, let’s talk about what goes on in the gut to influence our mood.
There are sheaths of neurons that line your intestine, these outnumber those in your spinal cord or peripheral nervous system. Your gut also produces neurotransmitters, for example, 95% of our serotonin resides in the gut. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, alertness and energy and is thought to be implicated in depression.
GABA is another neurotransmitter that makes it’s home in our gut. In fact, new research is finding that some of the bacteria in our gut depend on GABA. Meaning that nothing else makes this particular strain of bacteria grow!
Think of GABA as the chill pill -- it regulates anxiety and has a calming effect on us. Low levels of GABA are also directly linked to depression. The cool thing is that GABA is now used to treat depression by directly restoring important gut bacteria.
How do I know if I have leaky gut syndrome?
As we’ve discussed above, if you’re chronically ill then the chances are you have some form of leaky gut. If you’re not ill but want to know if your gut is out of sorts, there are a few signs.
If you routinely experience general fatigue, brain fog or get sick more (respiratory infections like asthma, bronchitis, sinus congestion, allergies) than usual then chances are you have some form of leaky gut.
In general, leaky gut and compromised gut flora (or dysbiosis) come together, but not always.
For example, you could argue that many of us have gut dysbiosis but not full blown leaky gut. Things are never this easy.
In addition to what we’ve already discussed about leaky gut, some symptoms of gut dysbiosis are constipation, frequent diarrhea (or IBS, Chrohn’s, Colitis), a complete absence of gas (you don’t fart) and undigested fiber in your stool.
Also, if you routinely experience gut rot, bloating, gas or indigestion you may be suffering from leaky gut.
Now that you’ve read the laundry list, let’s talk about how to fix this stubborn brute.
How to fix your leaky gut
Many of the suggestions below are not sexy but they are incredibly important! Before you consider any fancy supplements or witch-doctor remedies, first make any lifestyle changes necessary that are sustainable to long term health.
These changes are geared toward managing stress. Only when we start to manage stress in our lives can we start to restore healthy gut flora and eventually rebuild the damaged intestinal lining of our leaky gut.
Remember the bucket analogy? Choose wisely what you fill your bucket with. When you know you’ll be bogged down with work, it’s probably not the best idea to start a new diet for beach season or train for a triathalon.
Here’s how you can fix your gut:
- Sleep: 7-9 hours of sleep seems to be optimal for most. We’re talking about sleep, not time in bed.
- Eat fermentable / soluble fibers from vegetable sources.
- Introduce more fermented foods into your diet: sauerkraut, kim chee, kombucha, kefir and yogurt (if you can tolerate dairy).
- Drink bone broth from organic, gass-fed and pasture raised animals.
- Consider taking a multi species, high quality probiotic.
- Consider an autoimmune diet: basically you avoid dairy, eggs, sweeteners, grains, nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) and processed foods.
Some other important things to consider about stress is our relationships. You need take steps to remedy any toxic relationships you have with people in your life.
Sometimes this means gradually removing yourself from these relationships. Only then can your body recover.
I personally don’t think you need to take a probiotic at all times. But if you’re going on antibiotics, take laxatives, get food poisoning or you know that you have leaky gut syndrome, it’s a good idea to introduce a quality probiotic.
How long should I take a probiotic? It takes a few days to a few weeks for your gut flora to start restoring and building. A good rule (as gross as it sounds) is to let your poop guide you according to gut expert Konstantin Monastyrsky. Your stool should be light, moist and fluffy.
Still with me after that? Good!
You should also rotate your probiotic every few weeks to ensure that you’re re-populating your gut with diverse bacteria.
Finally, bone broth contains the perfect blend of the right amino acids and proteoglycans to rebuild the damaged mucosal layer of your intestinal lining.
Bone broth is high in glutamine and glycine. Glutamine and glycine have been shown to help repair the cell wall in the guts of critically ill patients with intestinal permeability (science term for leaky gut).
Bone broth also contains glucosamine. Yes that same glucosamine that is found in expensive nutritional supplements for joint health.
So there you have it, a lengthy primer on the importance of gut flora, your microbiome and leaky gut syndrome.
My goal is to get you to be more mindful with your daily choices -- everything is a tradeoff, and a lot of this is in our control. Don’t let someone tell you otherwise.
I’d love to hear if you’ve experienced any gut issues and how you’ve resolved them. Please leave a comment or email me connor(at)purebonebroth.co.