We sometimes fail to realize how integrated a system the human body really is. When we look in the mirror and see that damnable puff of flesh creeping over the top of our favorite jeans, (euphemistically referred to as a muffin top) or catch sight of the way our thighs jiggling as we pass our reflection in a store window, it’s easy to shift our entire focus on the single offending part. However, maintaining health is much more than having nice legs or a sleek waistline, we are undeniably greater than the sum of our parts (so to speak.) This is nowhere better evidenced than in the far reaching affects digestive health can have on the body.
How often do we consider our gut, beyond the superficial bulge we are eternally at odd with? In recent years, health science has begun to shift it’s focus from the macro to the micro, exploring the impact of intestinal bacteria on weight gain. As it turns out, the health of your intestines or rather the bacterial gardens within, have significant impact on not just weight but insulin resistance, immune function, diabetes, skin health, depression and perhaps more. Allow me to introduce you to your microbiome. The microbiome refers to all organisms constituting the community within your gut. Yes, they’re in there, in greater number than there are even cells in the human body. In fact, the idea that the communal microbiome constitutes it’s own organ system in the body is gaining favor in the gastroenterology world.
Research now suggests that your personal microbiome affects how your body stores and metabolizes the fats from foods you eat. The first data supporting this was actually published as early as 2004, and there have since been hundreds of studies and articles trying to explain the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. In basic terms, too much harmful bacteria in the gut leads to secretion of endotoxins. These endotoxins have an impact that reaches far and wide, doing everything from triggering inflammatory response to throwing off hormonal balances, both of which wreak havoc on the body (weight just being the most noticeable side effect.)
Chinese scientists have identified this bacteria, called Enterobacter, and have successfully performed procedures in which the offending flora was removed from the gut of a morbidly obese man. Subsequently, the portly subject lost 30% of his body weight. The role of Enterobacter was further illustrated in an experiment by those same researchers, who fed the bacteria to lab mice. The mice subsequently developed insulin and obesity resistance. Even if weight loss is not among your goals, high levels of Enterobacter inhibit your bodies ability to take nutrients from the foods you eat, or create appropriate insulin responses and force your system to work overtime with no benefits. Inappropriate insulin responses to food are of course the markers for both diabetes and hypoglycemia. The hormonal implications of this bacterial imbalance can lead to depression, and other mood disorders, and may contribute to skin conditions such as acne, melasma or hormonal aging.
So how did it get there in the first place? The composition of your microbiombe is affected, as you may have already guessed, by what we put in to our bodies. This includes food but also hinges on to medications we ingest. Antibiotics and acid-reducers are among the major culprits in creating a cushy environment for these bacterial interlopers. Stress, which ironically is the very reason many people are forced to take acid-reducing medications, is a contributing factor in and of itself. The body was designed to respond to stressors in short bursts, but many people have acclimated to an environment where they simply sustain a high stress lifestyle at all times. This throws our internal systems off by overtaxing them, reducing our abilities to fight off bacteria, viruses and other organisms that might do us harm.
The good news, since bacteria multiplies so quickly, we can manifest a change in our guts within 24 hours. How? Avoid processed grains, which tend to promote hospitable environments fr harmful bacteria. You can still enjoy your morning toast, just think about switching to whole or unprocessed grains. Fermented foods help to encourage a healthier balance in the microbiome. These include yogurt, which thanks to Jamie Lee Curtis and her peppy Activia commercials, most everyone knows about. However, you might not have considered other options, such as sauerkraut or kimchii. The process of fermenting these foods causes a proliferation of lactobacilli, a probiotic. This eases in digestion as well as boosting their vitamin levels. In addition, many friendly enzymes are produced, even natural antibiotic and potentially anticarcenogenic substances are released. The bottom line, these foods replenish our wanted gut bacteria, and see that those nasty Enterobacters are kept at bay.
You might also want to include garlic, onions and leeks as a regular part of your diet. These food are oozing with prebiotic fibers, which help encourage new growth of the good bacteria we want. You should also seek to manage stress, keep well hydrated and avoid overeating, all things that ease digestion in general. In some cases, a combination pre and probiotic supplement may be helpful in getting the ball rolling. Why not start small by trying one of the numerous brands offered in your drugstore pharmacy or picking up some yogurt? It’s a step towards integrating a more all encompassing focus on health into your life.