It’s All In Your Gut

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to your gut. And that’s for good reason. While we’re still learning a lot about how the interaction between the digestive system and the rest of the body works, we do know that the delicate balance of intestinal flora in your digestive system can affect the body’s ability to perform the critical functions that affect our overall health, such as:

  • Absorbing and producing vitamins and minerals,
  • Regulating hormones,
  • Digesting effectively,
  • Responding to the immune system, and
  • Eliminating toxins

For those of us who already suffer from gastrointestinal or bowel disorders such as IBS, Celiac disease, or leaky gut syndrome, the link between gut and mental health becomes more pronounced. Our gastrointestinal (GI) health even be the root cause of many symptoms throughout the body – including your mental health!

Given how extensive the influence of the gut is on these essential bodily functions, it’s clear that gut health is one of the most important ways we can look after our overall health. While there are many ways to take care of your gut, there are two factors that influence gut flora directly: prebiotics and probiotics.

How does the connection between gut and body work?

Well, in between the layers of your digestive tract is something called the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is made of two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells lining your GI tract literally from top to bottom.

The ENS sends messages between the gut and the brain. That’s why the gut is often called the “second brain.” And as you’ll see from the symptoms listed below, the messages that the second brain sends can be very persuasive!

How can you tell if your gut is imbalanced?

The ideal balance of gut bacteria is about 85% good bacteria to 15% bad bacteria. And that’s out of about 100 trillion bacteria that naturally live in our gut all the time!

But this balance can be upset in the course of daily life, by caffeine, processed foods, stress, long-term use of medications and even antibiotics. In fact, one course of antibiotics can weaken your gut bacteria for up to four years!

As we age, our stomach acid naturally  decreases.   This enables bad bacteria to get stronger, and inhibits the growth of good bacteria.

One of the main culprits of a bacteria imbalance is overconsumption of sugars. To make a real and immediate positive impact on your gut health, it’s essential to limit simple carbohydrates like sugars found in sodas, desserts, and processed foods like breads and flour products.

There are all kinds of indicators of an imbalanced gastrointestinal system – we just have to pay attention to them. Symptoms like:

  • Bloated, gassy and distended abdomen
  • Extreme bowel movement patterns like diarrhea or constipation (or a fluctuation of both)
  • Skin conditions including acne, irritations, and eczema flare-ups
  • Constant fatigue despite getting an adequate amount of sleep
  • ‘Down’ or sad emotions, irritability
  • Candida or yeast overgrowth
  • Weight loss due to lack of an appetite or weight gain due to cravings for malabsorbed nutrients

How can we help our gut communicate best?

By providing it with what it needs to keep a balance of good and bad bacteria, we can help the gut take care of its biggest job – regulating digestion. That way, the gut’s messages to the body and mind are clear, efficient, and healthy.

But how?  It comes down to maintaining a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, high quality rest, and supporting your gastrointestinal health with both prebiotics and probiotics!

Prebiotics vs Probiotics – What’s the difference?

Probiotics: Probiotics are strains of healthy, “good” bacteria that naturally live in the colon of our digestive systems. When consumed in the right amounts, probiotics can have great benefits to our health overall. Once in the colon, probiotic bacteria multiply, helping to regulate the balance between the good and bad bacteria that live there. You might be familiar with certain kinds of probiotics, as there are a few that have specific health benefits – and that’s why it’s important to consume a variety of strains of healthy bacteria.

Because they’ve been made so popular over the past few years, we know there are a variety of natural food sources for probiotics, largely stemming from fermented foods. A few fantastic choices are:

  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut natural, made with salt not vinegar
  • Kefir
  • Yogurt
  • Kombucha
  • Miso
  • Pickles

Prebiotics: Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that help probiotics grow and remain in your digestive system.  They’re known as “food” for probiotics.

Less information has been publicized about where you can find prebiotics, but that could be because you’ve been eating them this whole time! Prebiotics are a non-digestible fibre source that’s plentiful in lots of raw foods:

  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Onions (which still contain prebiotics once cooked)
  • Chicory root
  • Dandelion greens
  • Asparagus
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Jicama
  • Under-ripe bananas

Taking probiotics alone is a good beginning, but because we want to encourage the colonies of bacteria to grow and support a healthy gastrointestinal system, it’s important to eat properly to ensure that the probiotics can multiply and do their work effectively.

The key is consuming a combination of prebiotic and probiotic foods on a daily basis, to help replenish and maintain a healthy digestive system for overall health.

Is a supplement necessary to have enough prebiotics and probiotics?

Getting your nutrition from whole foods is always the preferred route to optimal health, but sometimes you need a little help. In that case, look for:

Prebiotic supplements: Prebiotics are actually really easy to get in a well-balanced diet, and due to the nature of the fibre they contain, that’s really the best way to get them. But if you are looking for a little extra push, try using chicory root as a coffee substitute, or using a powdered acacia gum (gum arabic) in a morning smoothie. Having these kinds of foods in your diet can assure you that your gut bacteria are well fed and well cared for.

Probiotic supplements: You should be looking for a supplement containing CFU (Colony Forming Units) in the billions. We generally recommended a minimum of 20 billion CFUs per day and may prescribe over 100 billion in specific situations.  Different probiotic strains are helpful for different health conditions and symptoms.  A product with a variety of strains is a great start and beneficial for general health.

You can stay on probiotics indefinitely, and we recommend them if you’ve been on antibiotics, the birth control pill, or radiation treatment.

If you choose to supplement, remember to take it at breakfast when the bacteria have the best chance of surviving the acidic environment of the gut. Whether or not supplementation is a regular part of your nutritional supplement regime, remember that taking probiotics after a course of antibiotics is one of the best ways to ensure a full and healthy recovery from the inside out.

Just as we take care of our muscles and our minds by feeding them the things they need to stay strong and healthy, so too must we take care of our “second brain”, our gut health, by feeding it what it needs to perform in optimal health.

Prebiotics and probiotics are the two primary ways of keeping your gut healthy, happy, and functioning optimally! Remember, while everyone should be taking prebiotics and probiotics, from children to pregnant people, to the elderly – everyone is unique.

We would love to help you determine which foods and supplements are best for you and your family. Please book an appointment with one of the Naturopathic Doctors at St. Albert Naturopathic Clinic to get recommendations for both the type and dosage that is right for you.