Over the last five years, there have been exciting research breakthroughs linking gut health and your brain, immunology, and overall health.
Most people think bacteria are harmful, but the trillions of good bacteria in our stomachs are critical to overall health. Most things we ingest enter through the stomach, so it’s no surprise that the stomach affects our immune systems. The strong link between the gut and other organs — including the brain — is new.
Doctors and scientists believe the bacteria balance in a Western diet is key to higher instances of obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases — and possibly even autism.
The wrong balance of gut bacteria in the human digestive system leads to inflammation throughout the body. And inflammation is a leading cause of several dangerous ailments.
You can learn a lot about gut health by reading 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 gut bacteria? Several factors led to poor gut health in the US and other Western countries.
Carbohydrates dominate the Western diet. Bacteroidetes (B-type) and Firmicutes (F-type) are two families of good bacteria in your gut.
The F-type thrives on carbohydrates.
A 2010 Harvard Study found that 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 resulted in a microbiome dominated by F-type bacteria.
The African tribes experienced little obesity or diabetes. We all know about obesity problems in Western countries. It turns out that F-type bacteria digest complex carbohydrates more efficiently for both energy extraction and fat absorption.
When we eat more carbs than we need, these F-type gut bacteria become great fat storage machines that create bigger and bigger waistlines.
People in the US take antibiotics like candy. While antibiotics were initially intended to treat life-threatening bacterial infections, patients demand — and doctors often prescribe — antibiotics for many inconvenient illnesses.
Many of these illnesses, such as ear infections, strep throat, routine coughs, and even the flu, are not life-threatening.
Antibiotics don’t just attack harmful bacteria that make us sick; they also kill some good bacteria in our gut. They can dramatically change the balance of good and bad bacteria in your digestive system, leading to longer-term ailments.
Gluten can weaken the intestinal wall of your stomach and lead to a “leaky gut.”
According to Harvard’s Dr. Alessio Fasano, exposure to gliadin protein in gluten increases gut permeability. That means microorganisms can sneak in and out through the walls. When gliadin and other compounds, such as lipopolysaccharides, pass through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream, they cause inflammation and other issues throughout the body. The brain is particularly at risk. This gives rise to a number of dangerous ailments, possibly including Autism.
The rapidly expanding use of herbicides and pesticides fuels debates about the effect of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are now called bioengineered (BE) organisms. In the mid-1990s, ag companies developed herbicide-resistant crops that tolerate heavy doses of Round-Up, which contains glyphosate. Scientists now believe glyphosate leached into our food may kill good gut bacteria.
In a 2012 study in Environmental Sciences Europe, researchers found herbicide usage increased by 527 million pounds in the US from 1996 to 2011 after the advent of GMOs. How does this impact gut health?
All that glyphosate finds its way into our food supply, as reported by several publications, including Ecowatch. Glyphosate is an effective killer of plants, bugs, and gut bacteria.
That said, new laws and research have changed the debate, and you should make an effort to understand the BE issue.
I have bad news for you if you drink diet sodas because you think the lower calorie count helps control weight. Recent studies link artificial sweeteners and obesity. Even more disturbing, several recent studies link diet soda with a higher likelihood of developing Type 2 Diabetes and other life-shortening conditions.
Studies are ongoing to determine these artificial sweeteners’ effects on the human microbiome. They harm gut health in mice.
A litany of other factors in a Western lifestyle could impact our balance of good bacteria. These include environmental chemicals in food packaging, chlorine in our drinking water, and the rampant use of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer.
Luckily, not all the news is terrible. You can repair your gut bacteria balance by making a few lifestyle changes.
Here are some fermented foods you can add to your diet to increase the diversity of good gut bacteria.
Traditional cucumber pickles are the most popular in this group. But consumers, increasingly aware of probiotic benefits, are finding interesting choices like pickled beans or carrots.
The ever-lengthening list of fermented food goes on. You can try kombucha fermented tea. Experiment with tofu or tempeh – soybean products often substituted for meat. It’s not hard to find gut-friendly options, and the effort may pay you back with a longer, healthier life.
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[Editors’ Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following on-demand webinars (which you can listen to at your leisure and each includes a comprehensive customer PowerPoint about the topic):
This is an updated version of an article originally published on February 2, 2017. It has been updated by Maryan Pelland]
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Tyler Mayoras is the Cofounder and CEO of Cool Beans. Tyler has spent more than 20 years in private equity investing and consulting, focused on sustainable food and agriculture. Prior to founding Cool Beans, Tyler was a principal in the Advantage Capital Food and Agriculture Fund where he led transactions involving Shenandoah Growers, Navitas Organics,…