Your gut is home to approximately 100 trillion micro-organisms, with over 400 known diverse bacterial species. In fact, you could say that we’re more bacterial than we are human! We’ve only recently begun to understand the extent of the gut flora’s role in human health and disease. Among other things, the gut flora:
- promotes normal gastrointestinal function,
- provides protection from infection,
- regulates metabolism and
- comprises more than 75% of your immune system.
Intestinal bacteria and the link to metabolic diseaseA study published this year in Science magazine found that mice without a protein known as toll-like receptor 5 (TLR5) in their gut, gain excessive weight and develop full-blown diabetes and fatty liver disease when fed a high-fat diet. TLR5 helps to control the numbers of bad bacteria. The study found that these bad bacteria caused a low-grade inflammation in the mice, which caused them to eat more and develop insulin resistance. They also found that treating these mice with strong antibiotics (enough to kill most of the bacteria in the gut) reduced their metabolic abnormalities.
Gut flora transplant, transplants metabolic disease!But the most interesting part of this study is that when the researchers transferred the gut flora from the TLR5-deficient overweight mice into the guts of skinny mice, the skinny mice immediately started eating more and eventually developed the same metabolic abnormalities the overweight mice had. In other words, obesity and diabetes were “transferred” from one group of mice to the other simply by changing their gut flora! Other studies have shown that changes in the gut flora can increase the rate at which we absorb fatty acids and carbohydrates, and increase the storage of calories as fat. This means that someone with bad gut flora could eat the same amount of food as someone with a healthy gut, but extract more calories from it therefore gaining more weight. Bad bugs in the gut can even directly contribute to the metabolic syndrome by increasing the production of insulin (leading to insulin resistance), and by causing inflammation of the hypothalamus (leading to leptin resistance).
How modern life affects your gutWhat all of this research suggests is that healthy gut bacteria are crucial to maintaining normal weight and metabolism. Unfortunately, several features of modern lifestyles directly contribute to unhealthy gut flora:
- Antibiotics and other medications like birth control and NSAIDs
- Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods
- Diets low in fermentable fibres
- Dietary toxins like wheat and industrial seed oils that cause leaky gut
- Chronic stress
- Chronic infections
How to maintain and restore healthy gut floraIf you’ve been exposed to some of these factors, there are still steps you can take to restore your gut flora:
- Remove all food toxins from your diet
- Eat plenty of fermentable fibres (starches like sweet potato, yam,etc.)
- Take a high-quality probiotic, or include plenty of fermented foods like saurerkraut or kefir in your daily diet
- Treat any intestinal pathogens (such as parasites) that may be present
- Take steps to manage your stress