Living within your gastrointestinal tract are 100 trillion microbes from over 1000 different species, collectively referred to as the gut microbiome. Recent research into the microbial world within our bodies has illuminated many previously unknown connections to our overall health. Indeed, the human body is an ecosystem with many sub-ecosystems (such as the gut), and just like the environment, when one of those ecosystems malfunctions, it compromises the entire system.
Why is gut health so important? Microorganisms in our gut help us properly digest foods — particularly complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber. They also produce vitamins (K, B-12, and biotin) and short-chain fatty acids, and secrete chemical compounds that perform nervous system signaling and mood-regulation functions (serotonin, GABA, dopamine, tryptophan, etc.). Around 50 percent of dopamine and 90 percent of the body’s serotonin are synthesized in the digestive tract. Together, dopamine, serotonin, and GABA form a trio of neurotransmitters that are essential for regulating mood, including feelings of happiness, alertness, and satisfaction. Serotonin is also connected to carbohydrate cravings, sleep cycles, pain management, digestion, and immune system function. The neurotransmitters and other signaling chemicals produced in the gut, travel to, and communicate with the brain via the gut-brain axis (a combination of immune, neural, and neuroendocrine pathways). Because of the gut-brain connection, gut health is directly intertwined with mental health and stress responses. When gut health suffers, so does our ability to handle stress and other everyday mental challenges.
The gut microbiome is also an integral component of the human immune system, providing a first line of defense against pathogens. Some researchers believe as much as 70 precent of our immunity resides in the gut and proper functioning of our immune system relies on an intact intestinal wall. The intestinal wall is critical to prevent bacteria, pathogens, partly digested food compounds, metabolic wastes, and chemicals from entering our bloodstream. But the intestinal wall can be damaged via multiple modes of gut dysbiosis including infections, psychological stress, Western dietary habits, chronic inflammation, long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), excessive alcohol intake, certain food compounds (including gliadin, a protein found in gluten), antibiotics, food sensitivities, fungal or yeast imbalances, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Damage to the intestinal wall can result in increased intestinal permeability — a condition commonly referred to as leaky-gut. In leaky-gut, compounds that are not supposed to enter the bloodstream, do. This passage of foreign compounds into the bloodstream is thought to be involved in many disease states including: anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and food and environmental allergies.
Some of the most common causes of gut dysbiosis include the overuse of antibiotics, our highly stressed lives, and our consumption of heavily processed foods. One of the reasons our food supply in particular is so damaging to our gut is that microorganisms are the enemy of our industrialized food system. Microorganisms can cause food to spoil quickly (although microbial fermentation of foods is one of the oldest methods of food preservation), leading to lost profit for food corporations. Whenever possible, food companies remove microorganisms from the food products they sell — produce is washed in antimicrobial baths, dairy is pasteurized, and meat is treated with ammonium hydroxide. While these processing aids are FDA approved and have generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status, the removal of harmful and spoilage microorganisms (the well-intended goal of these processes) also eliminates beneficial microorganisms and adds unnecessary chemicals to our food supply.
Unfortunately, our food supply is not the only place we no longer encounter bacteria — our homes, offices, schools, and other public spaces are also overly sanitized. Just as with food, we sanitize our environment to remove dangerous bacteria, but the beneficial bacteria get wiped out too. Without good bacteria entering and colonizing our bodies from our food and our environment, we become perfect hosts for pathogenic microorganisms. It’s ironic that the food, cleaning products, and sanitizers that are sold and marketed to the public as health promoting, insidiously kill off a key component of the human ecosystem. Research is demonstrating that the the microbiome’s of people from Western societies have far less microbial diversity than those living in other parts of the world. This lack of bacterial variety (the number of unique species and the total number of microorganisms) means we are likely missing bacterial species that are critical for health, and it also leaves our systems more vulnerable to infection and disease.
Most of our gut microbiome’s are imbalanced, some to the point of barely functioning — meaning we are more effected by stress, are mentally and emotionally depleted, and our immune systems aren’t as strong as they should be. Our weak guts are one of the reasons we feel chronically exhausted (sleep and dietary patterns like a high intake of sugar are also factors), crave carbohydrates, and also look for external sources of pleasure and reward. When our microbiome is imbalanced, we have lower neurotransmitter production and signaling and as a consequence, we find it more difficult to feel happy, alert, and satisfied. To make up some of that emotional deficit, we seek out ways of artificially boosting those feelings via activities such as shopping, social media, email, and even professional achievement. We feel like crap, so we buy stuff, eat a doughnut, or scroll through Instagram (or all three), but after the dopamine and serotonin hits from those pacifiers wear off, we’re right back where we started. In a perverse way, our modern consumerist lifestyle is both a cause and a reinforcer of, ill health. We are most susceptible to marketing and societal pressure when we are looking for something — anything — to help us feel better. Indeed, the consumer model functions best when we, the consumers, feel the worst.
Thankfully, we are in control of our actions and of our health. We can all begin and take action somewhere in our lives in order feel better, and working to restore gut health is something everyone can benefit from. While it’s certainly not a sexy topic, the gut microbiome and intestinal wall integrity, is directly or indirectly tied to just about every other aspect of health: energy, weight, muscle mass, skin, hair, immunity, sleep, digestion… As discussed, inflammation and stress both cause, and exacerbate, gut dysbiosis and leaky-gut. Therefore, reducing inflammation and stress are central recommendations for improving gut health. A diet for optimal gut health includes ample amounts of anti-inflammatory foods that heal and nourish the gut, contain and feed beneficial bacteria, are gluten-free, and low in sugar. As a starting place for dietary change, check out the recipes found on minimalwellness.com, which will always be designed specifically to promote a healthy gut and microbiome.