While I haven’t been blogging like I promised back in January, I have been researching and contemplating various changes to my behavior and diet to improve my (our, because I drag Tom along on every experiment) health. A hot topic which has gotten my attention is gastrointestinal tract (a.k.a. gut) health. It is absolutely fascinating in both what your gut is composed of and how it influences your health, behavior, and personality! Your gut is home to a community of about 40 trillion little organisms. 40 trillion! That is roughly equivalent to the number of cells that make up your body. Those organisms that live in your intestines and colon have been shown to influence host behavior (you) by releasing various hormones that mimic those produced by your cells to cause cravings, attitude changes, and behavior changes. Your gut is using you, its host, for its own means. Therefore, the health of your gut community is vital to your own health. Happy, healthy gut colony equals lean, balanced, and calm you! So, think of it as your own little garden that should be carefully tended because you reap the benefits of that garden.
So what are these organisms in your gut garden? They are all various types of single-cell bacteria. Most articles, books, and papers that you read put the bacteria into two different camps: beneficial and harmful (commonly referred to as good and bad). Your garden is not a peaceful place – the harmful bacteria and the beneficial bacteria do not get along and try to oust each other out of the garden. Obviously, we want the beneficial bacteria to win.
Harmful bacteria in the gut cause all sorts of issues including destroying the beneficial bacteria. This lowers the diversity of the bacteria, which then puts the gut colony out of balance. The harmful bacteria take over and only produce hormones and responses that benefit them,which is not necessarily beneficial to you. One common issue having too many harmful bacteria is inflammation of the gut, a.k.a. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which is the easiest one to link to gut health since it’s co-located. Other issues a high number of harmful bacteria is linked to are obesity(!), diabetes, general inflammation (auto-immune responses), and colorectal cancer.
What do Bacteria Do
Bacteria get the scraps of what your stomach and intestines don’t absorb. In the colon, the bacteria will consume the unabsorbed carbohydrates (fiber and some other sugars) and release short-chained fatty acids (SCFAs) which we then absorb and use as energy (6-10% for the Standard American Diet, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3601187/). SCFAs also stimulate the production of the hormone leptin which is an appetite suppressant, so it’s a good thing to have around. The bacteria also produce the gas H2, which is either exhaled or consumed by other organisms in the gut. Keeping the H2 levels balanced is being demonstrated as critical to keeping this process going. Too much H2 and the whole process shuts down. When the process shuts down, there are no more SCFAs for you, so you want this process to be healthy.
Similar processes occur in other parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Some bacteria, specifically the Lactobacillus species (the yogurt one), hang out in your large intestine, producing conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). The human body is mediocre at absorbing CLA from food and it is only found in dairy products and in grass-fed meats, so not a lot of sources. Having CLA in the body has been linked to lowering body fat and it has been widely produced as a weight-loss supplement. If one can get their own bacteria to produce it, then even better (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16924272/; https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/conjugated-linoleic-acid).
This is just two examples of what’s happening with those 40 trillion organisms. If you want further information, a tough-to-get-through, but very interesting paper on a bunch of different types of bacteria and what they do is here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3601187/
Other Interesting Things Your Gut Colony Affects
Obesity has a really interesting relation to gut health – there is evidence that when you feed your body poor nutrition, the bacteria in your gut are not getting fed the things they need. They actually signal your body via releasing hormones that they need food, which in turn, signals your brain that you are hungry, so then you eat more food that doesn’t meet the needs of your gut bacteria and they again send a signal for more food. It’s a vicious cycle. Changing the biodiversity in your gut and how your feed your gut has been shown to effect your appetite and the hunger that you feel. (Here’s an interesting press release about a paper presented on this topic at the American Chemical Society meeting back in 2015). Additionally, it has been shown that the biodiversity of an obese person is very different from that of a lean person (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3601187/). Change your biodiversity and you can change everything from your appetite to how your body stores and burns fat.
Your gut colony may also have an affect on your levels of anxiety. There are a number of interesting studies coming out of University College of Cork linking the health of your gut bacteria to your levels of anxiety. Check out this 2012 RadioLab podcast (~17 mins) about dropping mice with different gut biomes into buckets of water and how they reacted: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/segments/197242-gut-feelings
The list of affects that your gut boime has on you appears to be ever-increasing, so the importance of this topic will only grow.
How to Make Your Garden Grow
So, what can you do to improve your gut colony? It’s actually pretty easy. You treat it like a garden. Plant the seeds and feed the plants.
There’s a couple ways to plant the seeds in the gut colony. You can choose some very specific foods to eat to increase the biodiversity. Things like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, etc. Or, you can take formulated probiotics in pill or powder form. I personally perfer to take the supplement form. Most of the food choices are high in carbohydrates, so they don’t fit the rest of my diet. Supplement form (pills) have the benefit of containing lots of different bacteria strains in a concentrated form, if you chose wisely. While diet seems like a better option, one has to be wary of the marketing aspects of the product. Dannon got into big trouble for overpromising results from its yogurt with respect to gut health (https://abcnews.go.com/Business/dannon-settles-lawsuit/story?id=9950269). Supplements are no different – do you research and make sure you are buying a quality product with lots of different strains and in the billions of organisms. Check out this article for help in selecting one: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/best-probiotic-supplement#section9
There are varying opinions on how to take probiotic supplements. Some say to take it 3 times a day and some say to use it when you feel out of whack. I think this comes down to how you feel your personal system is operating. Right now, I’m taking probiotics twice a day. I used to take them three times a day and have cut back. I’m analyzing how I feel and if there are no adverse changes, I will reduce even more to probably once a month or so. I’m of the opinion that probiotics are the seeds and once you have the community planted, you don’t have to keep sprinkling seeds every day. However, if you aren’t very good about feeding your gut colony, you might have the re-plant more often. One reason I’m still taking daily probiotics is because I’m just starting to regularly and intentionally feed my colony. Once I get that up to a good level, I’ll be cutting back more and more on the probiotics.
Feed your Plants
Bacteria like to eat various types of fibers and starches as well as some sugars. This is where prebiotics come in. The term prebiotics refers to food for your gut bacteria. Regularly provide enough food for your gut bacteria and they’ll be healthy and provide you with beneficial acids and hormones.
You can buy (expensive) prebiotic supplements for this or you can do some feeding really cheaply. Any food high in fiber is good for feeding gut bacteria. Include all those vegetables that you are supposed to eat (brussel sprouts, broccoli, leafy greens, etc.) and you’ll be providing some good meals to the colony. In real life, it can be challenging to get enough fiber via normal meals for this, so supplementation can help.
One of the cheapest ways to supplement is with potato starch! Potato starch is a resistant starch, which means it resists digestion; therefore, reaching the bacteria for consumption which makes it a prebiotic. You can mix it into smoothies easily or sprinkle it on top of some foods (I tried it in my scrambled eggs this morning and it was…okay. It mixed in after about the second bite and I couldn’t really tell.) You can even mix it with warm water and just shoot it straight, which isn’t terrible. You do have to start slowly with this or your gut will just go crazy. I’m up to two teaspoons a day and working my way up to two tablespoons a half a teaspoon at a time.
Another relatively inexpensive way to supplement is with chicory root. Chicory root is a big source of inulin, a type of fiber which gut bacteria love. If you’ve ever had Cafe du Monde coffee in New Orleans, you’ve had coffee that is made from standard coffee beans and from chicory root. It used to be a popular additive to coffee because it was cheaper, but tastes like coffee. You can buy it in powdered form and add to your coffee as an option. You’ll also see chicory root as a additive in a lot of processed keto products as it adds the structure to a lot of the products. My favorite way to supplement chicory root is with Kiss My Keto gummies because then I get a candy snack! Again, start slowly with a chicory root supplement. I can only each a half a snack pack of gummies (6g of fiber in a half pack) right now or my gut complains.
I’ve been feeding my gut now for about two weeks and I’ve noticed huge changes already. When I first started, I was bloated and uncomfortable and now I’ve moved past that. The bloating and unpleasant side effects of increasing your fiber and prebiotics are the result of the gut colony changing its behavior, so you can look at it as a positive sign that what you are doing is changing something! Now, I am much more comfortable and my gastrointestinal process is happier. I haven’t noticed any anxiety reduction or massive fat loss yet, but I’m just getting started!
Hope this was an informative post and peaked your interest in gut health! I always welcome comments and feedback!
Alcock, J., Maley, C.C., Athena Aktipis, C.; Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms, BioEssays 36
Hanwerk, B.; Your Gut Bacteria May Be Controlling Your Appetite, Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 24, 2015.