We’ve come a long way in terms of understanding the importance of our gut (intestinal tract) and its importance to overall health.
Years ago (1980’s) a handful of scientists and doctors were researching the influence of intestinal health and its likely connection to overall health and disease. The mere mention that the ‘bugs’ in your intestine had an effect on your ability to fight infection and disease was met with harsh criticism from conventional medical researchers and negative attention from the FDA. Most of these pioneer ‘gut bug’ researchers took their work to countries outside of the US, where they were free to pursue this ‘radical’ idea.
Fast forward (2018) – my how things have changed. Research regarding intestinal microbes (‘good’ and ‘bad’ bugs – bacteria- that live and flourish in the intestines) is considered one of the most critically important. In general there are billions and between 300-500 different kinds of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bugs that live in the intestines. The balance between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is now known to be a key factor.
Coming up with perfect intestinal bug combination is a work in progress. Everyone’s intestinal microbe make up is unique – much like a fingerprint. We now know that gut microbes are determined partly by the mother’s microbe mix — the environment that a person is exposed to at birth — and partly from diet and lifestyle. Research has also proven that these intestinal microbes affect everything from metabolism, to mood, to the immune system.
Further, research suggests the gut bacteria in healthy people are different from those with certain diseases. It’s thought some types of microbes may protect against illness, while others increase the risk. Additionally, there are issues that can positively or negatively influence a person’s intestinal microbe count and mix.
With the established general link between gut microbes and disease, scientists began to focus on specifics. Continued research has shown a clear connection between certain illnesses and the bacteria in your gut. These illnesses include: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases (including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), obesity, colon cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, autism, depression and anxiety.
We’ve also learned that eating a diet high in fiber rich foods (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), regular exercise, and supplementing with probiotics can help encourage a healthy and balanced gut microbe mix. Likewise, a diet high in fat and sugar and low in fiber can kill certain types of gut bacteria (upsetting the balance). The use of antibiotics, which not only wipes out the intended ‘bad’ illness causing bacteria, also kills ‘good’ protective bacteria. (When antibiotics are needed, a discussion regarding supplementing ‘good’ intestinal flora with a probiotic should be addressed with the health care professional prescribing the antibiotic treatment).
What’s next? We know that microbes (‘good’ and ‘bad’ bugs) also live on our skin and in our lungs. These too have a connection to disease or lack thereof. Experts say that future research needs focus on those areas as well as the intestines in order to pinpoint the exact types of bacteria that lead to certain ailments. Then, you may be able to just take a probiotic pill and stave off diabetes or treat arthritis… that’s the future. Considering how far we’ve come in 25 years… that future may not be too far off.