Intestinal Dysbiosis: the root of all illness??
Based on the last post, you might be thinking that you’re destined for immune troubles throughout life, especially if you were born via C-section! Not to worry – things begin to even out a bit following the first year of life when the composition of intestinal bacteria begins to resemble that of an adult. This, no doubt, is the result of our switch to the consumption of solid foods. (Phillips, 2009)
The adult intestinal bacteria are thought to remain relatively stable over a period of months or even years, however even the smallest shift in species can lead to compromised immune function in the form of allergies or other autoimmune issues. (Phillips, 2009) And at this point our gut bacteria balance, once completely out of our control, now becomes dependent, almost completely, on our lifestyle, diet and the environment in which we find ourselves. Things like antibiotics, poor dietary choices, psychological stress, and environmental toxins will cause immune-compromising shifts in this bacterial makeup. And just when you think that cleanliness might help you avoid these bacterial “shifts”, that couldn’t be further from the truth! Would you believe that there is a “hygiene hypothesis” which suggests that we are actually more prone to the negative effects of our internal and external environment because of our excessive hygiene? Speaking of ironic! Technologies such as pasteurization, water purification, refrigeration and the processing of food prevent us from exposure to a wide array of microorganisms, both good and bad. Okay, in some cases this may be beneficial, However, without this full-spectrum exposure, our bodies aren’t able to develop all of the immune-supportive microbiota necessary for optimal health. (Phillips, 2009) In fact, there is proof that certain strains of bacteria that were original to the human body many years ago no longer exist because of our extreme cleanliness. (Phillips, 2009) Now I’m not suggesting that you go out and put yourself in harm’s way of dangerous bacteria, however there seems to be a rather large difference in what we, today, consider “harm’s way” and what our ancestors believed was detrimental.
I’ve already talked a lot about some of the causes of an imbalance of gut bacteria, or “intestinal dysbiosis” as it is often called. Overall poor digestion will also lead to dysbiosis in that the harmful bacteria are able to run amok because there is not sufficient hydrochloric acid or enzymes to properly sterilize incoming food and defend against invaders. Lastly, overgrowth of bacteria within the small intestine can lead to dysbiosis. You see, the small intestine is typically free from bacterial colonies, however there are instances involving outside influences that cause these microorganisms to migrate, causing fermentation. Symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, bloating, gas and even weight loss due to malabsorption of nutrients can result from this situation. (Phillips, 2009)
As stated earlier, this imbalance of bacteria can have serious consequences, especially over the long-term. One example is, if the condition mentioned above, fermentation in the small intestine, continues for a while, it begins to take a toll on the digestive tract. It begins to slowly erode the protective barrier of mucous until, ultimately, toxins that would normally stay within this area end up slipping through into the bloodstream. This is called “autotoxicity” and it presents itself in the form of allergies, fatigue, inflammation, joint or muscle pain and mental fog. Chronic constipation may also lead to intestinal dysbiosis, probably because the waste products spend too much time hanging around the large intestine, which creates a perfect environment for bacterial proliferation. (Sirakov & Dimov, 1981)
Earlier in the post I mentioned antibiotic use as a culprit in the disruption of the balance of gut bacteria. Research has confirmed that even a single round of treatment with an antibiotic will significantly decrease strains of good bacteria while allowing harmful bacteria, such as candida albicans, to multiply. This can end up being a serious, long-term side effect of these drugs, simply due to the autotoxicity described above. Some studies have suggested that the strains of good bacteria may be disrupted for periods of up to two years following just a single course of antibiotics! (Phillips, 2009)
Now that we know some of the ways that imbalanced gut bacteria can affect us physically, it’s important to note that intestinal dysbiosis can also affect us mentally – specifically when it comes to how well we are able to deal with stress. That’s not surprising, given that there is such a strong relationship between the gut and the brain. It’s true! If you ever wondered about the term “gut feeling,” I assure you there is some science behind it! First, there are 100 million neurons present in the small intestine, an amount almost equal to that found in the spinal cord! In effect, human beings possess two nervous systems: the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord, and the enteric nervous system, intrinsic to the intestinal tract. The vagus nerve connects these two systems and regulates stress response, digestion, detoxification, etc. for the brain. It is very powerful and allows the gut direct communication with the brain. (Wang, 2012)
Various studies on this have actually shown that stress hormone production increases when the stomach is irritated. In one study, rats whose stomachs were irritated displayed depression and anxiety while attempting to complete a swimming task. This mental anguish was so severe that they gave up on the task while the controls, whose stomachs were not irritated, did not. (Wang, 2012) Similarly, a 2011 study found that anxiety in mice with infective colitis was eliminated with the addition of Bifidobacterium longum as a supplemental probiotic. It turns out that this specific strain of bacteria is thought to regulate mood- and behavior-regulating signals using the vagus nerve. (Bercik, et al., 2011)
Another strain of good bacteria, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, is also a superstar in the management of stress and anxiety. Specifically, it has the ability to decrease the stress-induced hormone “corticosterone” while also regulating the levels of GABA, an important neurotransmitter that inhibits nerve transmission in the brain. Simply put, all this leads to the calming of nervous activity within the body!
As usual, feel free to email me or message me with any questions. Thank you!
Looking for probiotic recommendations? Check out my online dispensary under “Digestive Health”.
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