Gut Health 101
How to support the microbes that support your health and wellbeing.
You’ve probably heard the words “gut health”, “microbiome”, and “gut bacteria” over the last few years. In fact, the phrase “gut health” was rarely searched before 2014 and exploded as a search term in the last 5 years.
One trick of the wellness space is to be forever pushing the boundaries of what people need to do/think about to be healthy & well. In some ways this is a good thing - it grows our awareness of our bodies and how we can nourish them. Other times it sews confusion - and this is one area I find a lot of misinformation and avoidable frustration.
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For the sake of this article:
Gut health refers to the quality of your digestive functions, your ability to absorb nutrients from food, and your pain free digestion and elimination.
Microbiome is the collection of all the bacteria, fungi, viruses, and any other microbes that live on, in, and around your body. They protect us from pathogens, support the immune system, aid in digestion and absorption of nutrition, and probably dozens (if not hundreds) of other nuanced functions we have yet to identify.
Gut bacteria is kind of a misnomer. It’s meant to refer specifically to the microbiome in your gut… but your gut has a lot more than bacteria and we don’t want to leave anyone out.
How Your Gut Works
You probably learned in elementary school the basics of digestion. Food goes in your mouth, to your stomach, gets smooshed around. Then the small intestine, large intestine, colon… you know the last part.
What you might not have learned are the nuances along the way.
In the stomach your other digestive organs, like the pancreas, release digestive enzymes to break down your food. Then the mass of partially broken down food enters your small intestine. This is where things get cool if you’re a microbe.
There are over 1000 identified different microbes that live throughout the small intestine (and that’s just what we know about! So cool!) and many of those live in their own specific regions throughout the miles and miles of small intestine you have. They interact with one another in those regions.
Think of it like a ecosystem. The ducks are interacting with specific plants and bugs. Change something in the climate, the water table, or introduce a predator and you change that ecosystem. Interdependent species are effected. Your guts is similar in it’s own ways.
Throughout the small intestine microbes are helping to break down your food. Some of them produce byproducts that impact gut lining, feed other healthful microbes and they impact gut lining, or the improve the absorption of resources in your food.
Here’s a big thing to know:
Different microbes will flourish or die off depending on what you feed them.
It goes like this:
You eat something… it makes its way to your gut
The bacteria in your gut that thrive on that thing you ate - they go nuts! They replicate like wild fire, blooming in your gut
The other bacteria in your gut that don’t eat whatever you ate - they die off without enough fuel to keep blooming
Changes to your diet shift the make-up of your gut within a few days - for better or worse.
If you eat the foods that feed anti-inflammatory, serotonin producing, “healthy” bacteria, those will bloom. If you eat the pro-inflammatory, cancer-promoting bacteria, those will bloom.
Sounds simple enough, right?
After the small intestine our food heads to the colon, where the last bit of nutrients is squeezed out along with excess water. Indigestible parts of food accumulate, spent microbes, and some other forms of waste collect here… and again, you know the rest.
Wait? Don’t I just eat yogurt or take some probiotics?
(Quick caveat: I am not your doctor. I am not your GI specialist. I am definitely not your nutritionist. All of which is to say, this information is not meant to treat your health conditions and you’re going to want to work with a qualified practitioner on what’s best for your own health and wellbeing.)
You might be surprised to learn I do not recommend supplementing probiotics to my clients?
Why? Here are two more terms to start:
Probiotics are a class of supplements, often in pills but sometimes other ways like foods, including a live bacterial strain whose presence has been shown to be beneficial to human health.
Prebiotics are foods that you eat the function as food for bacteria already present in the gut.
Understanding that… probiotics would seem helpful, right?
There’s a catch. A few catches, actually.
First, supplementation is poorly regulated in the United States (as an industry they have a very powerful lobby and have successfully avoided regulation for decades). So you don’t know for certain that what you’re taking is what it says or that the bacteria in that pill/powder are still live. For example, if transported improperly they could have died from heat.
But there’s a second one you’re less likely to have heard about. Remember above where I said there’s over 1000 bacteria throughout the small intestine (so far!) and they live in different ecosystems?
What would happen if I forcibly over-introduced one species to every ecosystem in North America? Some places, nothing. Other places they’d become an invasive species and wreak havoc. For people with gut imbalances, overgrowth, or aggressive anti-biotics this is what supplementation of single probiotic strains can do.
Instead, I encourage my clients to consume prebiotic foods! That way the bacteria already present in their guts are encouraged to flourish on their own, in the right places, at the right times.
What are Prebiotic Foods?
If you do a quick google for prebiotic foods you’ll find a list of foods there have been specific studies of - and every website will list Chicory Root, Dandelion Greens, and Garlic.
Why? They’re high in inulin - a specific form of fiber.
But here’s the deal: just like taking a probiotic supplement is reductionist and only feeds one kind of bacteria, focusing on one type of fiber might also be narrow for the body.
The solution? Diversify! Just like your investments, you want to cover multiple bases.
Fiber is the structure in food that a human body does not absorb during digestion.
Soluble fiber absorbs water (think soaking chia seeds).
Insoluble fiber does not absorb water (like a carrot).
When it comes to gut health here’s the habit change sequence I use with my clients:
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