The Healthy Gut
GUT BUGS: A primer on digestive health
We are but a long tube with an entry and exit.
Our GIT (gastrointestinal tract) is how we interact with the outside world (some argue, that technically, it IS the outside world). While we also absorb and inhale some substances, we especially bring the outside in through ingestion.
It only makes sense that 60-80% of our first line defenses reside in the gut. These include stomach acid, digestive enzymes, mucosal barriers, lymphatic tissue, immune cells, and most numerously – bugs!
The human GIT contains billions of microorganisms – 10 times as many as there are cells in the body – that represent 1000-2500 different species! These microbes can be referred to as a unique organ – the microbiota) – and typically weigh 1-1.5 kg (~2-3 lbs).
Gut bugs live symbiotically – that is, in a mutually beneficial relationship with us, and each other. Participating in as many biochemical reactions as the liver, the microbiota participate in vital functions like: immune system modulation, enhanced GIT motility & function, improved digestion & nutrient absorption, vitamin production, resistance to gut infections, production of beneficial compounds like short chain fatty acids & polyamines, weight management and mood management.
When all of these gut bugs are in harmonious ratios and adequate numbers, we are said to be in a state of Eubyosis.
A qualitative and quantitative change to the microbiota (intestinal microbes) that produces harmful effects in the host (you) is called Dysbiosis. Dysbiosis is seen to play a role in many chronic and degenerative diseases like: Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ankylosing Spondylitis, IBS, IBD, atopic eczema, obesity, kidney stones, GERD, etc. Some studies have also shown an association between dysbiosis and autism.
The most common cause of dysbiosis is antibiotic use – which commonly cause alterations in microbiota function for 18-24 months after use, and for up to 4 years after triple therapy for H. pylori eradication! Other causes include: chemotherapy, stress, C-sections & hospital births, formula feeding, high protein (especially animal) /fat/refined carbohydrate diets, sulphite & sulphate ingestion.
Signs and symptoms of dysbiosis include: abdominal pain, bloating, excessive flatulence, constipation or diarrhea, poor concentration, joint pain and fatigue. Dysbiosis can be a stand-alone condition, or be a contributing factor to conditions like GERD, IBS and IBD. Dysbiosis can be treated effectively with prebiotics, probiotics, colonic foods, and in some cases antimicrobial herbs. Consult with a licensed ND to determine which specific strains and dosages are appropriate for you.
Probiotics are live micro-organisms that show benefit when administered in judiciously. These may include naturally fermented live culture foods like yoghurt, kefir, kim chi and sauerkraut. Probiotics are also available in supplement form.
There are specific desirable attributes (not found in all commercially available probiotic products/strains) that affect the ability of the probiotic to survive the acidic environment of the stomach, adhere to the intestinal mucosa, colonize the gut, produce anti-microbial compounds, show proven safety, and provide adequate shelf life & stability.
The strain is KING
Additionally, successful probiotic use involves strain-specific prescribing.
To clarify, Lactobacillus is the genus, and acidophilus is the species. Within each species there are multiple strains (i.e. Lactobacillus acidophilus LA5 – where LA5 is the strain).
Actions and qualities of probiotics are fundamentally strain-specific – yet very few practitioners are prescribing them this way. In terms of dose, typically 1 billion CFU – colony-forming unit (109 CFU/dose) – is sufficient. If a probiotic contains multiple strains, each one should contain at least 109 CFU/dose. Frequency of dosing depends on the condition being treated.
Many products evaluated have shown to contain misidentified strains or insufficient CFU present. Talk to a licensed practitioner with expertise in this area to find the product that will be most effective for you.