Traditionally, gut health just meant the health of our gastrointestinal organs, such as the stomach and intestines. But today, we know that these organs are home to more than 1000 different types of bacteria. These tiny microorganisms are too small to be seen by the eye but have far-reaching effects in every stage of our life and disease.
Despite advanced medical technologies and improved life quality, gut problems are still prevalent in 2020. For example, Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects 10–15% of the population worldwide. How could this happen?
Research has shown that the gut microbiome in people with IBS is very different from healthy people, which are reflected in:
- A low microbial diversity (number of different gut bacteria)
- Fewer gut bacteria that can break down fiber
- Increased production of substances that promote inflammation
- Decreased output of inflammation-suppressing substances
Indeed, the gut bacteria have co-evolved a cooperative relationship with humans. An unhealthy gut is the result of the dysfunctional gut microbiome. In this article, we will look at the top 5 mistakes that people make, which damage the gut flora.
1. A diet low in fiber
There’s a lot of truth in the old saying: “You are what you eat.” Different foods nurture completely different gut bacteria.
The preferred energy source for friendly gut bacteria is a fiber that comes predominantly from plant foods. When gut bacteria consume fiber, they produce short-chain fatty acids. These metabolites are well known to be anti-inflammatory and induce various health benefits, including:
- Maintain glucose stability
- Regulate appetite
- Provide fuel for intestinal cells
- Maintain the protective gut lining against infectious pathogens
- Reduce inflammation
- Regulate the immune system
Unfortunately, low fruit and vegetable consumption and, therefore, low fiber intake is a prevalent problem in our modern society. Lack of fiber in the diet is closely linked to gut problems like inflammation and leaky gut. In the long term, gut inflammation becomes systemic inflammation and paves the way for chronic disorders such as heart diseases. In fact, an estimate of 1 in 9 cardiovascular deaths could be attributed to not eating enough fruits.
However, this problem can be fixed by adding more fiber-rich plant foods into the diet. Many of the so-called “superfoods” today are, in fact, fiber-rich plants.
2. Consuming too many additives
During food manufacturing, fiber is stripped out of whole foods and replaced with synthetic additives that make them tasty, or more accurately, addictive.
Science has shown that synthetic additives such as artificial sweeteners and dietary emulsifiers could lead to:
- Reduced gut bacterial diversity
- Increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut)
- Higher levels of pro-inflammatory bacteria
- Higher risk of metabolic diseases
How can you avoid these additives? Try to eat whole natural foods such as grains, vegetables, beans, and fruits for at least 80% of the time. Let processed food be an occasional treat.
Apart from fiber, modern food processing also usually removes essential vitamins and minerals from the diets. Instead, you would see “fortified vitamin” on packages, meaning that the vitamin is artificially added in the end! Also, trace minerals are not added back to prevent intoxication of heavy metal elements, leaving many people insufficient in essential minerals. Therefore, you may need to supplement natural sources of vitamins and minerals while avoiding additives. For example, shilajit is a natural compound in Ayurvedic medicine that has been used by the ancient Himalayas for this purpose.
3. Antibiotic misuse
Although antibiotics can be life-saving in fighting severe infections, they also kill vital gut bacteria that are necessary for your health. Today, antibiotics are frequently used when they shouldn’t be, such as:
- “Treating” viral infections when antibiotics only kill bacteria, no virus
- “Preventing” infections when there are no infectious bacteria but only gut bacteria to kill
- Added to soap for hand hygiene when ordinary soap is equally effective
Because of antibiotic misuse and overuse, we now have problems like antibiotic resistance and leaky gut.
Research has shown that antibiotics can have long-lasting effects on the gut microbiota. When healthy men were given antibiotics for 4 days, pathogenic bacteria quickly bloomed when protective bacteria perished. Even after 6 months, some health-promoting bacteria that were in the gut before never returned.
In animal studies, antibiotics also led to increased fat tissue, abnormal metabolic hormones, and immune function. They even increased the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
Therefore, it is clear that antibiotics should only be used when they are absolutely necessary.
After each antibiotic treatment, you should also follow up with probiotic supplements to help restore your gut environment.
4. Stress overload
Have you ever had “butterflies” in your gut when something stressful is coming up? Our stomach is susceptible to stress. In fact, many people develop gut disorders due to chronic stress.
The gut-brain connection is a trendy topic in recent years. It is a real thing – the two organs are connected by the Vagus nerve. Research has shown that bacteria like the Lactobacillus strain could directly affect the neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. In turn, the mind can also
influence gut health, as excessive stress hormone levels cause imbalances in the gut microbiota and immune cells.
Besides, stress hormones can stimulate the receptors on your gut lining and cause movement
and contractions that make you nauseous. If you become severely stressed, your brain will trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, which slows down digestion to cope with the perceived threat.
Because of this intimate relationship, many consider the gut as a “second brain.” As such, psychotherapies are available to ease mental stress and gut distress. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, relaxation therapy, and hypnosis have all been shown helpful for people with stress-induced gut problems.
Before things get too out of hand, you can follow some simple tips that can help you relieve everyday stress.
5. Poor sleep habits
Irregular sleep or lack of sleep is a common phenomenon in 2020. It is also a killer of gut health because your microbiome is regulated by circadian rhythms.
Research has shown that gut microbiome diversity, an indicator of a healthy gut, is positively correlated with longer sleep time. In contrast, lack of sleep had the opposite effect. Interestingly, a clinical study showed that just 2 days of reduced sleep time led to changes in gut composition, which are linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Moreover, the gut produces melatonin, the substance which promotes sleep. When gut functions are disrupted, sleep is also affected, which in turn worsens gut problems. Therefore, poor sleep can kick off a vicious cycle that harms the gut and many other health problems.
In closing, many poor modern lifestyle habits make it hard to have good gut health. Check if you experience any of these warning signs and start fixing them by changing your behaviors.