What once was the body’s most ignored organ is now in the limelight, and for a good reason: it does much more than simply digesting food, absorbing nutrients, and eliminating waste products. Studies reveal the gut’s significant contribution to our body’s immune responses, and the brain-gut connection is one of the fastest growing areas of medical research.
Our gut is an amazing and mysterious system populated with trillions of microorganisms commonly referred to as gut microbiota. About 33 percent of gut microbiota are shared among most people, while the rest are unique to everyone. Think of your intestinal microflora as your personal ID card. The unseen microorganisms are constantly at work, assisting with the digestion of food and synthesis of certain vitamins important for energy metabolism, maintaining the health of the nervous system, participating in red blood cell production, and helping the immune system recognize and fight off foreign invaders and harmful bacteria.
Our gut is happy when we have a balance of healthy bacteria and bad bacteria. (Suffering from constipation or diarrhea?) But there are certain factors that can easily disrupt that balance and wreak havoc on our gut health, leading to problems in other parts of the body. For instance, researchers have found connections between gut health and obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even depression.
Let’s look at common factors that can disturb the delicate balance in the microbiota, and at ways to restore that balance back to normal.
5 factors threatening your gut, and what you can do to defend it
Antibiotics and painkillers: Antibiotics are meant to destroy bad bacteria that are making us ill, but they don’t really differentiate between the good guys and the bad ones. As a result, your good gut bacteria count drops as well, resulting in digestive issues such as bloating and constipation. To counteract the harmful effects of antibiotics, make sure you repopulate your intestines with good bacteria by taking probiotics. For best results, take the probiotic one to two hours after taking the antibiotic and keep on supplementing with probiotics for a few weeks after completing your treatment course. Yogurt or kefir are good dietary alternatives to probiotic supplements.
While painkillers are not antibiotics, be careful and use them sparingly. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition revealed that the elderly who weren’t taking NSAIDs such as aspirin or ibuprofen had higher good bacteria counts in their gut.
Processed foods: Unfortunately, our modern diet is made up of a lot of unhealthy things—lots of sugar-loaded items, processed foods, and very little dietary fiber, resulting in a microbiota disaster. It has been demonstrated in a lab that after just one day of a high fat, high sugar, and low fiber diet, the makeup of gut microflora in mice was altered. While good bacteria struggle in this environment, the bad bacteria thrive, promoting food sensitivities, yeast infections, and even irritable bowel disease. This is yet another reason to switch to homemade food and keep fast food as a last resort.
Diet drinks: Another component of a modern diet, these beverages are labeled as “diet” because they replace sugar with artificial sweeteners, providing a sweet taste without the calories. But calorie-free sweet taste comes at a high cost of microbiota imbalance and the risk of glucose intolerance. Try replacing your soda fixes with freshly squeezed juices, lemon water, or cold tea.
Low-carb diet: Low-carb diets are all the rage right now. Supposedly effective for losing weight, these diets restrict carbohydrates found in sugary foods, pasta, and bread while increasing protein, healthy fat, and vegetables. The problem is, this style of eating starves the bacteria of food they need for healthy growth. A study out of the University of Copenhagen found that a quarter of people following a low-carb regimen had 40 percent less good bacteria than what is considered healthy. (Eating this reduces your risk of a heart attack by nearly 52%.)
To improve your gut health, start eating more foods rich in prebiotic fiber, which promotes the growth of good bacteria. Asparagus, artichoke, onions, garlic, leek, and bananas are all great sources of prebiotic fiber.
Stress: As mentioned, our gut is constantly communicating with our nervous system through biochemical messengers, actively participating in the matters of the brain. It’s been proven time and time again that stress can disrupt the balance of bacteria (think of anxiety-induced nausea or diarrhea), although scientists hypothesize that it can work the other way around too—restoring a healthy gut balance may lower stress levels and improve mood. Regular mindfulness practices such as meditation and relaxation techniques will help you train yourself to become more stress resistant and able to cope with difficult situations with minimal harm to your health.