All disease begins in the gut. – Hippocrates
Research over the past twenty years has revealed that gut health is critical to overall health and can contribute to a wide range of diseases including diabetes, acne and other inflammatory skin conditions, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, autism spectrum disorder, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.
There are two variables that determine out gut health:
- The intestinal microbiota or ‘gut flora’.
- The gut barrier.
There are approximately 100 000 000 000 000 000 (100 trlllion) microorganisms in the gut. If we stacked one trillion dollar bills laid end-to-end they would stretch from the earth to the sun – and back – with a lot of kilometers to spare. If you did this 100 times, you would get an idea of how much 100 trillion is!
These 100 trillion bacteria are made up of over 400 diverse bacterial species.
A healthy adult, on average carries 1.5 to 2 kilograms of bacteria in the gut. All these bacteria are arranged in a highly organized micro-world with certain species predominating and controlling others.
The bacteria in our gut influence how our bodies break down food and play a crucial role in our health and disease.
Many diseases have a connection to gut bugs. These include ulcers, bowel disease, obesity, cancer, neurological disorders like autisim and ADHD.
When gut bacteria becomes altered so does the brain chemistry.
Gut micro-flora can be divided into three groups:
- Essential or Beneficial Flora
This is the most important group and must numerous in healthy individuals and these bacteria are often referred to as ‘friendly’ bacteria. The main members of this group are: Bifodobacteria, Lactobacteria, Propionobacteria, physiological strains of E. coli, Petpostretococci and Enterococci.
2. Opportunistic flora
This is a large group of various microbes which can be quite individual in type and number. These include: Bateroids, Peptococci, Staphylocci, Streptococci, Bacillia, Clostridia, Yeasts, Enterobacteria (Proteus, Clebsielli, Citrobacteria, etc), Fuzobacteria, Eubacteria and Catenobacteria. Each of the afore-mentioned bacteria is capable of causing health problems if they get out of control.
3. Transitional Flora
These are the various microbes that we swallow daily in food and drink and are usually non-fermenting gram negative bacilli from the environment. When the gut is well protected by beneficial bacteria, this group of microbbes passes through out digestive tract without doing any harm but if the beneficial microbe population is damaged this group can cause disease.
Functions of Normal Gut Flora
Gut flora is the housekeeper of the digestive system.
- Promotes normal gastrointestinal function by providing a physical barrier between the gut wall and the environment (food etc.)
- Provides protection against infection by producing antibiotic type substances, anti-fungal volatiles, anti-viral substances (including interferon, lizocym and surfactins that dissolve membranes of viruses and bacteria).
- Produce organic acids, which reduce the pH near the gut wall to 4.0-5.0, making an uncomfortable acidic environment for growth and activity of pathogenic microbes which require more alkaline surroundings.
- Neutralize nitrates, indols, phenols.
- Inactivate histamine and chelate heavy metals.
- Suppress hyperplastic processes in the gut (the basis of cancer formation).
- Regulates metabolism.
- Normal gut flora provides a major source of energy and nourishment for cells lining the digestive tract. It is estimated that the gut epithelium derives 60-70 percent of its energy from bacterial activity.
- Comprises more than 75% of our immune system.
Beneficial bacteria in our digestive system engage the lymphoid tissue of the gut wall and take part in the production of huge numbers of lymphocytes and immunoglobulins. Research shows that in people with damaged gut flora there are far fewer lymphocytes in the gut wall, which leaves it poorly protected.
Lymphocytes in the gut walls in turn produce immumoglobulins, the most important one being Secretory Immunoglobulin A (IgA). IgA is produced by the lymphocytes in all mucous membranes in the body and excreted in body fluids. It protects mucous membranes by destroying and inactivating invading bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.
- Normal gut flora keeps the balance between cell mediated (located wherever the body is in contact with the outside world – skin, mucous membranes, inside cells) and humoral (located in body fluids) immunity.
The gut wall with its bacterial layer can be described as the right hand of the immune system. If the bacterial layer is damaged or abnormal then the immune system is trying to function with its right hand tied behind its back.
‘A well-functioning gut with healthy gut flora hold the roots of our health. And, just as a tree with sick roots is not going to thrive, the rest of the body cannot thrive without a well-functioning digestive system. The bacterial population of the gut- the gut flora-is the soil around these roots, giving them their habitat, protection, support and nourishment.’