The topic of gut flora is all the rage lately, but it doesn’t go without reason. First, it’s important to understand what gut flora is and why it benefits humans so greatly. Current science tells us there’s at least 100 trillion bacterium living in our gut. If we’re healthy, only a minuscule percentage of that is “bad”. That said, good bacteria can turn to the dark side and become bad if we don’t nurture it properly. What is the difference between good and bad? The good bacteria lines the inside of our digestive tract as absorptive organisms. It helps us break down foods and the nutrients they contain. They comprise a large portion of our immune system. It’s the communication network between our brain and the rest of our body. This means that if we have a bacterial imbalance in the gastrointestinal tract, other body systems are at risk.
The human body is quite remarkable; there’s essentially an entire ecosystem with its own communication matrix residing within us. This complex network has complex requirements for everything to run smoothly. If there is good flora growing in excess in the wrong section of our digestive tract, it can cause problems. If it isn’t being fed the right food, an imbalance can occur. The good bacteria can also generally hold bad bacteria at bay. It can let small amounts of it lay dormant inside of us. But if it gets weak, it can be overtaken by the bad bacteria.
Bad flora is generally pathogenic, meaning it can cause infection, illness, or even death.
Most of us have had a run-in or two with these pathogenic nuisances, whether it be from letting a cut get dirty, eating undercooked or contaminated food, or drinking unsafe water in foreign places. The “travel bug” is a common culprit of gut flora imbalance. The water in each area contains certain bacteria, as well as the local produce and environment. When we visit foreign places we are especially susceptible to things like food and water poisoning. This is because we simply aren’t adapted to the new organisms. Symptoms of food poisoning are quite unpleasant. It usually causes simultaneous vomiting and diarrhea for a few hours up to a few days. This can put us at risk for extreme dehydration, which can be very serious if not treated.
Travel bugs and food poisoning are thought of more often in regards to bad bacteria. But what about the more subtle symptoms we learn to live with every day? Excessive antibiotic use, acidic diets, and chronic stress are very much at play in the imbalance of our gut flora. Not to mention the excessive use of hormonal birth control and other prescription drugs. Some common side effects of an imbalance are bloating, fatigue, digestive issues, mood swings, dermatitis or acne, food sensitivities, and even autoimmune disorders. Unfortunately, much of the modern western world is ill-informed about gut flora imbalance and these subsequent symptoms. So they go on feeling sub-par and brush it off as normal.
Antibiotics are one of the most prescribed medications in the United States
Especially during cold and flu season, or if you’ve caught one of the nasty travel bugs mentioned previously. While antibiotics certainly have their place, they are an ironic remedy. For instance, some of the more gnarly bacteria we may ingest while abroad we need to kill with strong antibiotics in order for us to get better. However, as of yet, no one has created antibiotics that can discern which bacteria to kill and which to let live.
For this reason, when we ingest what seems like a small dose of antibiotics for those three to ten days prescribed; it actually comes in like a wrecking ball and kills all the bacteria it can. The irony here is that in killing all the bad bacteria to become healthy again, we are also detracting from our general health because we now have to rebuild all the good flora. This allows other bad bacteria as well as yeast (fungi) to enter more easily. A common issue after taking antibiotics is to develop an overgrowth of Candida Albicans, the most common strain of yeast. This can cause a wide variety of symptoms such as bloating, oral thrush, UTI’s, vaginal yeast infections, joint pain, fatigue, digestive issues, dermatitis, and sinus infections.
It’s easier said than done to avoid antibiotics altogether, especially if there’s a child involved. It is important though, that we understand when antibiotics are necessary and when they’re not. During flu and cold season, they are often prescribed for illnesses that are not even bacteria related. So use discretion in this regard. If they are in fact necessary, there are some effective ways to stay ahead of the game and start reestablishing that good bacteria as soon as possible.
When picking up the prescription, be sure to pick up some high-powered probiotics as well.
The highest quality brands are typically in the refrigerated section and have a minimum of five different strains of bacteria. The Colony Forming Units (CFU’s) will be listed on the bottle as well. Since we are taking a brute force method to regain good bacteria, we want a high CFU count. This typically means in the hundreds of billions. Quality is definitely more important than quantity in this choice, though. The probiotics should be taken at least a couple of hours before or after the antibiotics so they don’t cancel each other out. The continuation of probiotics for thirty to sixty days is a key factor here; the rebuilding process takes time.
Taking high-quality probiotics for at least one month is a good idea for reestablishing good bacteria in any situation, not just when taking antibiotics. We also want to consider, however, that taking such a high volume of CFU’s daily is only beneficial for so long. Since we are ingesting outside bacteria to reinoculate in our digestive tract, we want to make sure it doesn’t start growing out of control. If we take just enough to let the inoculation process stabilize and then let our bodies do the rest, we are more apt to be successful. Think of it like teaching a baby how to walk, we must let go of their hand at some point. If good bacteria levels still are not where they need to be, another 30-day dosage can be administered after a 30-60 daybreak.
Crucial co-contributors in the regrowth of good bacteria are pre-biotics.
This is the life force to gut flora. Prebiotics consist of soluble fiber sources that pass through our small intestine undigested and become fermented in the colon. The gases from this fermentation process are what the healthy bacteria feed on to be able to sustain a healthy population. There are prebiotic supplements out there that you can take side by side with probiotics. But it is more effective to go to the whole food route. Whole food sources include onion, garlic, leeks, jicama, apples, bananas, greens, chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, legumes, lentils, walnuts, and some whole grains like oats and barley.
Diet plays a major role in our ability to not only reestablish healthy gut flora but to maintain it. The Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of lots of high acidity foods. The natural pH of foods versus their pH when interacting with our internal enzymes and stomach acid can differ greatly. For example, lemons are acidic in nature, but when ingested, they become very alkalizing. On this note, drinking a glass of warm lemon water before anything else each morning is one of the most alkalizing things we can do.
Yeasts like Candida Albicans, bad bacteria, and even cancer cells are prone to thrive in acidic environments. Therefore, if we remain alkaline, we don’t give them much of a chance of survival. Eating a plant-based diet including raw nuts and seeds, and grass-fed meat and dairy is the best way to remain alkaline. Plants contain phytonutrients, which are the components of the plant responsible for its taste, color, and smell. We are naturally attracted to these elements of plants.
We are meant to have a large number of plants in our diet.
Phytonutrients are separate from vitamins and minerals, but just as important. Most plant foods exist in an alkaline state, while most animal products and processed foods are acidic. Making sure that when we do consume animal products, they are grass-fed and free of hormones or antibiotics is important.
Our diet is not the only determining PH in the body. If we feel stress, depression, or anxiety, we can’t benefit nutritionally from the foods we’re eating. This is because our bodies are busy pumping out hormones and chemicals in response to our emotional distress rather than producing what we need to digest our food. This process is referred to as “leaky gut”, because all of the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients pass right through us instead of being absorbed by our gut bacteria. Getting plenty of sleep, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, and eliminating processed foods and sugars will aid in the proper production of these chemicals and hormones. Implementing these practices into our daily routine, as well as plenty of exercises, will greatly reduce stress and therefore help maintain pH balance.
Evidence of the direct correlation of gut flora and our overall wellbeing is increasing rapidly. I believe future research will reveal much more complexity than has already been found. Also, I believe that our gut health plays a bigger role in disease prevention than we expected. While they seem to be experts at communication, we may never fully understand all of the intricacies of the bacteria existing within us. What we do know, is they do much more than living in our digestive tracts. These microorganisms are impressive, to say the least. Taking care of them should be a priority if we want to remain in good health, or find our way to good health.