Monday, November 8, 2010

How gut microbes can make or break your health

Don't look now, but you're not alone. Inside your digestive system, trillions of microbes play a central role in your health.

The vast majority of both cells and genes in your body, in fact, aren't human, but intestinal gut flora cells and genes present in the hundreds of species that have colonized different parts of your digestive tract. They are so numerous that they collectively weigh between between two and five pounds. (Note that a gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds.)

These gut microbiota not only digest and process your food, they are the foundation of health. They manufacture hormones, biotin and vitamin K, suppress the growth of harmful bacteria and "train" the immune system, among many other tasks.

You can upset the normal balance of intestinal microbes by eating processed food, taking antibiotics, experiencing stress, not drinking enough water and in other ways. The simple act of eating domesticated animal meat, for example, may trigger the gut to produce carcinogenic toxins, and even destroy helpful gut bacteria through the presence of veterinary antibiotics. Taking prescription antibiotics can wipe out up to half the species of intestinal microbes normally present. And food preservatives, household cleaners, chlorine and other everyday poisons can damage the normal balance of gut microbes as well. 

The composition and health of your gut flora can even influence weight by affecting how your body stores fat. A typical American high-fat, high-sugar diet has been found to alter intestinal bacteria so you gain weight faster than you would on a healthy diet with the same calories. This is yet another reason why yo-yo dieting doesn't work. A crash diet can starve your body thin, but your intestinal flora can stay optimized for weight gain for months, or even years. It takes less than 24 hours to throw gut flora out of balance. And it can take anywhere from two weeks to four years of eating a healthy diet and avoiding antibiotics to restore that balance.

We are born without any gut flora, and we cannot produce them. We must acquire them from the environment and from the food we eat. Processed industrial food, which is sterilized to avoid spoilage as it ages, prevents the natural transfer of healthy microbes from nature into our bodies. This is why laws in many states requiring pasteurization of dairy, nuts and other foods may do more harm than good: Pasteurization cuts off our needed supply of microbes. We get these necessary microbes from raw honey, which most people never eat, from nuts like raw almonds, which are illegal to sell in the supermarket, from whole grains, which most people don't buy and from fresh produce, which hardly anyone eats enough of, and from fermented foods like sourdough bread, raw-milk cheese, olives and others.

A study conducted by Italian scientists found that African children who eat a diet of primarily millet grain, sorghum wheat, legumes, vegetables and even the occasional termite had vastly superior gut flora than Italian children who eat a typical Western diet high in animal protein, fat and sugar. Most likely because of that better flora, the African kids rarely get allergies, asthma or suffer from the wide range of autoimmune disorders common among European and American children.

A recent study found that sufferers of both irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis are missing many of the species of gut microbiota that people without the disorders have.

Scientific understanding of intestinal microbes is still in its infancy -- many species have yet to be even identified. But it appears that throwing these communities out of whack can predispose you to a wide range of diseases and contribute to excess weight and even metabolic syndrome.

The bottom line is that healthy diet and lifestyle equals healthy gut flora, and healthy gut flora is absolutely necessary for a healthy body.

Diet can largely determine whether gut microbes help or hinder digestion, protect from or create inflammatory conditions, protect from or produce harmful bacteria and toxins or strengthen or weaken our immune systems. 

The Spartan Diet is not only the healthiest diet for humans, but also for the gut microbes we depend on every day for optimal health.