Gut Reaction

Written by Lydia Benedict.

 The overhaul began about five years ago, almost by accident. I had been feeling poorly and I didn’t like it. I began searching for answers, reading book after book and meeting with doctors and even alternative medicine practitioners. While my quest didn’t immediately translate to better health, I discovered a common message: “Health begins in the gut.” When I learned that half of the human immune system is in the intestines, food took on a whole new meaning for me.

It was time to make some changes. I began in the kitchen. First I emptied the refrigerator, removing everything from milk to ketchup. Next came the cupboards. Out came the flour, sugar, and even the table salt. I got rid of cold cereal like Lucky Charms and Captain Crunch. I also purged the freezer. I restocked the kitchen with natural food including organic flour, Sucanet, and sea salt. I bought coconut oil for the first time and we started eating more whole grains. Finally, I sought out local growers for fruit and vegetables, and local farms for meat and eggs.

Even today, my quest continues. In a recent New York Times article by author Michael Pollan, I learned how the colon and other organs serve as our immune system. A colony of around 100 trillion bacteria lives on the skin, tongue, and mostly inside the intestines. It is the job of our resident bacteria to recognize invading bacteria. The idea that a colony of bacteria is within your gut may be unsettling. But think of this colony of microbes as your own personal homeland security. Pollan writes, “Resident microbes work to keep pathogens from gaining a toe hold by occupying potential niches or otherwise rendering the environment inhospitable to foreigners.”

Depending on how diverse and robust the gut community is can determine how well an individual can resist infectious diseases. This may help explain why some people get sick from food poisoning and others who eat the same food do not. Additionally, a person’s microbiome—the several hundred microbial species living within an individual—can calm inflammation and influence appetite.

Children do not have fully developed immune systems. In fact, microbial colonization begins at birth when the baby leaves the sterile environment of the uterus. Most of the microbes in an infant’s gut community is acquired from the mother through the process of child birth. Babies delivered by Caesarean Section are not exposed to these maternal microbes. The C-section baby doesn’t receive this microbial “vaccination” from his mother. As a result, these infants have a gut community that more closely resembles the microbes of their parents’ skin, which is not ideal for a strong immune system. This may help explain why children delivered C-section have higher rates of allergies, asthma and autoimmune problems.

Another important way infants develop their immune system is from breastfeeding. Breast milk introduces a population of beneficial microbes to the infant gut. Until recently, infant formula did not address this issue.

Western culture has developed other microbially unfriendly practices, namely antibiotic usage. Physicians often prescribe antibiotics to get rid of a bacterial infection and antibiotics have played an important part in lengthening life expectancy. However, antibiotics don’t distinguish between the good bacteria that normally reside in our gut and the invaders that make us sick. Antibiotics kill both. After one round of antibiotics, an individual’s gut community will return to its former state. However, a recent study found that gut microbes don’t fully bounce back after a second round.

However, prescriptions from our physicians are not the only way we are exposed to antibiotics. Seventy percent of antibiotics today are fed to livestock. Scientist aren’t sure why, but the antibiotics help fatten livestock. The result is antibiotic residues in our meat, milk, and surface water. Scientists wonder if this steady low-dose exposure to antibiotics is having a similar effect on us—fattening us the same way antibiotics fatten livestock.

But it doesn’t stop with antibiotics. We also rely too heavily on antimicrobial chemicals. While chlorine has its place in the world of sanitation, it is also used to wash our lettuce and other produce. In addition to ingesting antimicrobials like chlorine and antibiotics with our food, we come in contact with these agents in everything from hand sanitizer to children’s toys. We don’t get our hands dirty enough—literally. In fact, individuals who garden and work with animals are often found to have a more diversified gut community and stronger immune systems.

Then there is the sterility of processed food and its lack of fiber. Fiber is important food for the microbes living in the gut. When we eat, we need to remember our lower G.I. Processed foods don’t leave anything for the colony of microbes living in the gut. To neglect resident microbes is a bad idea since these microbes are responsible for maintaining the epithelium—the internal skin that lines the intestines. While most bodily tissues receive nourishment through the blood steam, the epithelium does not.

Epithelial cells in the colon obtain much of their [nourishment] from…the byproducts produced by gut bacteria through the process of fermenting plant fiber. So feed your microbiota a variety of plants, vegetables and fruit as well as fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut to help increase microbial biodiversity. And the less a food is cooked, the more of it that reaches the microbiota. Without proper nourishment, the epithelium becomes permeable, allowing bacteria, endotoxins and proteins to slip into the bloodstream. This breach can cause the body to mount an immune response. Over time, this low-grade inflammation can contribute to a number of chronic diseases.

Research on gut microbiota has already found a clear distinction between the microbiome of people in western culture and those of less industrialized nations. In fact, the microbiome of people living in West Africa is much more diverse than its American or European counterpart. While research in this field is too young to determine the long term effects of such differences, it is understood that a more diversified gut community is more resilient. Think of it from an agricultural viewpoint. If a farmer plants just one crop (a monoculture) and along comes disease or pest that kills that particular crop, the whole crop is potentially wiped out. However, the farmer who plants a variety of crops could lose one crop and still flourish. Sadly, the microbiome of the American people is becoming more and more like a monoculture, losing important microbes that can potentially help keep us healthy. Perhaps our war on germs has left behind some casualties—namely our guts.