Over the last five years, there have been key research breakthroughs in the link between gut health and your brain, immunology and overall health.
Most people think bacteria is bad, but the trillions of good bacteria in our stomachs are critical to our overall health. Most things we ingest enters through the stomach, so it is no surprise that it would be linked to your immunity. What is new is the strong link between your gut and other organs—including your brain.
Many doctors and scientists now believe that the bacteria balance in a Western diet is a key factor in our higher levels of obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases—and possibly even autism.
The wrong balance of gut bacteria leads to inflammation throughout the body, and inflammation is a leading cause of several dangerous ailments.
(While it would not be appropriate in this article to go into great detail about these links, you can learn a lot more about gut health and particular studies by reading a couple of books on the subject including Brain Maker by Dr. David Perlmutter M.D. and The Microbiome Solution by Dr. Robynne Chutkan M.D.)
So, what are we doing in the West that destroys the balance of good bacteria in our gut? Unfortunately, it does not come down to one silver bullet. Rather, a number of factors led to the rise in poor gut health in the US and other Western countries.
Here are some of the most important factors that researchers believe are changing our gut balance:
The Western diet is full of processed foods, added sugars and dominated by carbohydrates. There are two primarily families of good bacteria in your gut, Bacteroidetes (“B Type”) and Firmicutes (“F-Type”).The F-Type thrives on the high carbohydrate diet of the West.
A 2010 Harvard Study found that the gut bacteria of African tribes, who ate a high fiber diet with few added sugars and less processed food, resulted in a microbiome dominated by the B Type bacteria. A Western diet—high in carbs and processed foods—resulted in a microbiome dominated by F-Type bacteria.
The African tribes had very little obesity or diabetes, while we all know about obesity problems in Western countries. It turns out that F-Type bacteria are more efficient at digesting complex carbohydrates (for both energy extraction and fat absorption).
When we eat far more carbs than we need, these F-Type gut bacteria become great little fat storage machines helping to create bigger and bigger waistlines.
People in the US take antibiotics like candy. While antibiotics were initially meant to treat life-threatening bacterial infections, patients demand—and doctors often prescribe—antibiotics for a litany of ‘inconvenient’ illnesses.
Many of these illnesses are not life-threatening, such as ear infections, strep throat, routine coughs and even the flu.
Antibiotics don’t simply attack the bad bacteria that make us sick; they also kill some of the good bacteria in our gut. They can dramatically change the balance of good bacteria in your digestive system which can lead to longer-term ailments.
If you read my previous article, then you know I am not a fan of wheat and gluten. But, I did not have time to discuss all the negative effects of gluten in that article.
One of the other negative effects of gluten: it can weaken the intestinal wall in your stomach and lead to something called “leaky gut.”
According to Harvard’s Dr. Alessio Fasano, exposure to the gliadin protein (in gluten) increases gut permeability in all humans. When gliadin and other compounds, such as lipopolysaccharides, get past the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream, they can cause inflammation and other issues throughout the body. The brain in particular. This can lead to a number dangerous ailments, including potential links to Autism.
One of the key debates around genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”) is about the rapidly increasing use of herbicides and pesticides, especially Glysophates. One of the main GMO changes introduced in the mid-1990s was the development of herbicide-resistant crops—so they don’t die when you heavily douse the land with Round-Up.
In a 2012 study published in the Environmental Sciences Europe journal, herbicide usage increased by 527 million pounds in the US from 1996 to 2011 (since GMO introductions).
What does that mean for your gut health?
All that Glysophate finds its way into our food supply, as reported by several publications including Ecowatch in late 2016. Glysophate is an effective killer of plants and bugs, and many scientists now believe doses of Glysophate in our food may be killing off good bacteria in our gut.
If you are drinking diet sodas because you think the lack of calories helps to control your weight, I have bad news for you…several recent studies actually have determined a link between artificial sweeteners and obesity. Even more disturbing, a French Study in 2013 involving over 66,000 women over 14 years found that the women that drank diet soda were twice as likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes than those that drank sugar-sweetened drinks.
There are several studies ongoing to determine the effect these artificial sweeteners have of the microbiome, but they have been found to harm gut health in mice.
A litany of other factors in a Western lifestyle could also impact our balance of good bacteria including environmental chemicals found in food packaging, chlorine in our drinking water and the rampant use of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer.
Luckily, not all the news is bad. You can repair your gut bacteria balance by making a few changes in your lifestyle.
First and foremost, add more fermented foods, which are loaded with probiotics.
Second, reduce the carbohydrates, especially sugar and wheat, in your diet and opt for more vegetables.
Third, cut out most, if not all, artificial sweeteners out of your diet.
Fourth, buy more organic and non-GMO based foods, especially those foods where you eat the outside of the plant.
Here is a list of some key fermented foods you can add to your diet to increase the diversity of good bacteria in your gut include:
The most popular probiotic food, yogurt is usually loaded with good bacteria. However, make sure you opt for low sugar versions of yogurt because some traditional yogurts are loaded with up to 30 grams of sugar. I prefer Icelandic yogurts which have about 11 or 12 g of sugar, but there is also low sugar Greek and Indian yogurt available.
This fermented cabbage dish loaded with healthy probiotics.
A Korean side dish made of fermented cabbage, Kimchi is another great gut health food.
Pickles are the most popular of this category, but more fruits and vegetables are available at the grocery as the public is becoming aware of the benefits of probiotics.
A fermented black tea used in Asia for centuries.
A fermented soybean dish that is often substituted for meat by vegetarians. Try to find a non-GMO version, since over 90% of the US soybean crop is GMO.
As one of the co-managers of Advantage Capital’s $155 million food and agriculture private equity fund, I do a lot of research on the food & agriculture industries and the changing tastes of the American consumer.
I think other investors (and non-investors) may benefit from the countless hours I have spent reading books and articles and watching food documentaries.
I have over 25 years of experience in private equity investing, banking and consulting. During my career I have lived in the three largest cities in the US; NYC, LA and Chicago. Way back when, I earned an MBA from Northwestern University and a BS from University of Illinois.
Tyler Mayoras is a passionate impact investor & entrepreneur focused on building a sustainable future of food. He has over 20 yrs of PE experience building successful companies.
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