Why are the bacteria in your gut important?
A major role of your good gut bacteria is to digest certain classes of carbohydrates in a process called fermentation.
Dietary fibre is an example of an element of your diet that your good gut bacteria actively target. Dietary fibre (found in many fruit, vegetables and grains) is an indigestible component of your diet – meaning it isn’t digested or absorbed properly in the stomach or small intestine – but instead passes through into the large intestine where it is subject to fermentation.
As a result of the fermentation taking place in your gut, essential by-products are produced including vitamin K, B vitamins and short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) such as acetic, propionic and butyric acid.
Both B vitamins and SCFAs are well known to have beneficial effects on your metabolism – the process by which you convert your food into energy.
However, the health benefits as a result of the actions of your good gut bacteria (the production of vitamins and SCFA’s during fermentation is thought to be key) are not thought to stop at the level of the gut – instead they are thought to translate elsewhere around the body and may be having a positive impact on areas such as your immune system, mood and weight management.
How can you keep your gut bacteria happy?
So, now you know all about the bacteria living in your gut and some of the important influences they can have but how can you support them so they will continue working away happily?
Many dietary and lifestyle factors can influence your gut bacteria. We naturally have a wide variety of different strains of bacteria in the gut which can be broadly split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories; the balance between the different strains is crucial.
Supporting your good bacteria whilst keeping the bad under control is essential for good health – and you can influence this! Below I outline some bad habits worth avoiding.
||Effects on gut bacteria
||Long-term, whole-body effects
|A diet high in refined sugar
The bad bacteria in your gut love refined sugar; they feast on it to survive. As well as the obvious sources of refined sugar, white varieties of bread, pasta and rice quickly convert into sugar in your body. Try cutting the amount of sugar in your diet and the bad bacteria will struggle to take over
|Too much sugar can cause blood glucose fluctuations and cravings. Eventually, this pattern can make you more susceptible to insulin resistance. Other problems are also associated with this cycle such as inflammation, water retention, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes. Elsewhere, as yeast and bacteria overgrow, other problems such as thrush can arise
|Low fibre diet
A low fibre diet means the good bacteria in your gut struggle to carry out the all-important fermentation and we risk producing less B-vitamins and SCFA’s. A low fibre diet can also contribute to constipation which can result in a build of toxins in your system
|If you don’t support your good bacteria the bad strains can dominate. Your good bacteria and soluble fibre help to regulate cholesterol levels in the body too which helps support your cardiovascular system. Low fibre usually means sluggish bowels too – this means toxin overload can be a likely result of that slow-moving poo!
||Stress can have a negative impact on your digestive system. When you are stressed your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This means that your heart, lungs and skeletal muscles are priority and your digestive system is temporarily ‘switched off’. Recurrent stress can result in low levels of stomach acid and your bacteria can become imbalanced
Chronic stress can over time affect the balance of bacteria in your gut and symptoms such as constipation or diarrhoea can arise. The brain-gut connection is apparent and often works in a vicious cycle; an imbalance in gut bacteria is thought to have significant effects on your mood and vice versa: stress can make digestive issues and conditions usch as IBS worse.
|Bad eating habits
||If you eat too quickly, don’t chew your food properly or drink too much liquid alongside your meals your digestion can really suffer. The result is improper digestion, the food particles moving through your system are too big and your digestive juices become diluted. As a result there are more provisions available for the bad bacteria!
||If the food you eat isn’t properly digested by the time it reaches the colon – the bad bacteria can launch an attack. As bacteria digest food they produce gas; this can give rise to unpleasant symptoms such as bloating and flatulence. Continual exposure to unwelcome food particles in the large intestine may also give rise to food intolerance in some cases, and can cause a flare up of symptoms, for example in cases of IBS
||Antibiotics are often necessary as they can kill pathogenic bacteria in your body making you ill. However, they can also harm your good gut bacteria; they don’t differentiate between the two types very well. As the numbers of good bacteria in your gut diminish, the effects of some of the remaining bad bacteria can take hold
||The side effects of antibiotics mainly land in the gut. This can give rise to short-term symptoms such as constipation or diarrhoea. However, long-term use of antiobotics can result in dysbiosis (imbalance of bacteria) which can have major effects on many systems of the body
Now some good habits to employ instead and why...
||Effects on bacteria
||Effects elsewhere around the body
|A diet high in prebiotic foods
||Prebiotic foods such as artichokes, garlic, onions and beans basically feed your good gut bacteria! Foods containing L+ lactic acid create an environment in which your good bacteria can flourish and outweigh the effects of the naturally residing bad guys
||A happy gut means a happy body! The gut is connected to and has an influence on many areas of the body but has a particularly important connection with the brain. It is thought an imbalance in gut bacteria can contribute to your mental health as well as other aspects such as weight management
|High fibre diet
||Fibre is a key component of your diet which is subject to fermentation by the good bacteria in your gut. The production of important vitamins and SCFA’s as a result of this support your metabolism.
||Soluble fibre which creates a jelly like substance (as it absorbs water moving through the gut) can help manage your cholesterol. Another type, known as insoluble fibre, adds physical roughage to the food waste which helps to keep your bowels moving. Your bowels excrete excess pathogens and toxins and this can have important whole-body effects
|Eat slowly and chew
||If you eat slowly and chew your food properly you more effectively break down the food in the initial stages of digest which support the actions of your stomach acid, digestive enzymes and friendly bacteria further on
||Eating too quickly can give rise to indigestion. Indigestion means ‘improper digestion’ so if food isn’t processed properly in the stomach this creates a saccade of problems further along: yes you guessed it, in the gut. If particles of food arriving are too large, it can give rise to problems as your bad bacteria use this as a source of food and can quickly multiply.
||Managing stress is necessary for optimal digestion. When we are relaxed our parasympathetic nervous system is active (the so-called ‘rest and digest’ system) and your digestive functions are happily ticking over
||Stress affects nearly every system of your body. But stress in your gut can affect the balance of bacteria which can exert effects elsewhere, particularly in the brain. A stressed gut often goes hand in hand with a stressed mind, as is often the case in IBS
|Regulate your water intake
||Water is key for digestion – drinking enough can help keep your bowels moving – hello water, goodbye constipation! However, as much as it’s important you should refrain from drinking water with your meals. This can dilute your digestive juices and cause issues further on in the digestive process
||Long-term constipation means bacteria and toxins can build up as old food waste is fermented. Your colon is very good at reabsorbing water but we don’t want that mess being reabsorbed, yuck! We can end up with toxin overload which can affect your whole body – your skin, mood and weight can suffer as a result! If you dilute your digestive juices and food travels partially undigested into your bowels, problems soon arise as the bad bacteria reap the benefits. Food intolerance can even emerge over time
Beyond lifestyle habits we can also make some product recommendations to give you a helping hand.
Molkosan – Rich in L+ lactic acid, Molkosan helps support the gut environment and support the growth of our good gut bacteria.
Probiotics – Probiotics are the good bacteria themselves, packed in large numbers into a capsule you can easily top up your numbers – just make sure the gut environment is right first.
It is important to understand that although you may not instantly associate problems around your body with bacteria imbalance in the gut, your army of bacteria may be having more of an impact than you originally thought!
Therefore, supporting your friendly gut bacteria and keeping the bad strains in check may be an important step in giving your whole body the lift it needs.
For the final part of my good gut bacteria series: 'Good bacteria beyond the gut' simply click here - enjoy!