You Are What You Host

By now you’ve heard that looking after your gut is important for your health - but what does gut health actually mean?

  • The gut includes the entire gastrointestinal tract and also includes the microorganisms within it.

  • We tend to think of the gut’s role in our body to be solely digestive and absorptive properties, but it does so much more!

  • Its our largest immune organ, with 80% of the immune system being in the gut!

  • Its also our largest endocrine organ, and our endocrine organs are the ones responsible for producing hormones.  60% of hormones are actually gut-based!

  • It has a tremendous impact on our mental health - more on this later.

  • Maintaining a healthy gut is vital for your body to function correctly .

In the last decade or so scientists discovered the community of trillions of bacteria, viruses and parasites living in our gut and have started to understand not only how they impact us but also how we can alter them to manage disease.

The bacteria present in our gut alters and manipulates all the gut’s roles - from digestion and absorption, to the immune and hormonal roles.

What is the microbiome?

  • It’s considered the “other organ” inside the intestines.

  • It’s also present in our mouth, lungs, genitourinary tract and skin.

  • The gut harbours the most microbes out of all the other organs in our body.

  • 100,000 billion microbes are in the intestines and weigh approximately 1.5kg or 3.3lbs!

  • Approximately 50% of fecal mass is bacterial biomass.

  • The resistance to antibiotics occurs in the intestines.

When we are born we are considered sterile, meaning we have no bacteria / microbiome yet.  The first colonization occurs at birth so depending if you’re born vaginally or via c-section will heavily influence the microbiome that you will have during your life.  Research has shown that c-section babies have on average three different strains of bacteria, and vaginally-born babies have on average nine! Breastmilk vs formula will also have a drastic impact on the flora of the baby. Most c-sections aren't done by preference and so some hospitals have started protocols to expose the c-section babies to mom’s vaginal flora.  Now, those c-section babies have a much closer microbiome to the vaginal birth babies than without the inoculation to mom’s flora. You can check with your local hospital if they have these protocols in place.

By starting probiotics early we can also affect the microbiome of that child all the way into their adulthood.  Research has shown that during the first two years of life we can alter the microbiome and this new microbiome can be maintained into adulthood.  By three years of age the microbiome is fully formed and so it's important during those first few years to provide a variety of nutrients, good bacteria and minimal “disruptors” like pesticides, stress, antibiotics and trauma.

Now that we’ve covered how the microbiome is born, should we even alter it?

Yes!  C-section babies with no inoculation with mom’s flora are at greater risk of gastrointestinal conditions, allergies, and obesity.  We also know that people with a less diverse microbiome and with lower growth of bacteria are prone to gut infections, autoimmune conditions as well as increased need for antibiotics which will further disrupt their gut.

How do we alter the microbiome?  Probiotics!

  • Good probiotics are made from extracting the most beneficial bacteria from a human gut, growing it in a petri dish and putting it back in the gut in greater quantities via powder or capsules.  Not all companies do this, and not all companies research their products for efficacy. Probiotics are one of the supplements that are important to be of high quality, if you're buying poor-quality probiotics you're literally flushing your money down the toilet.

  • Probiotics can help maintain and enhance the normal function of the gut and prevent gastrointestinal conditions.

  • It can restore balance between “bad bacteria” and “good bacteria” which has healed people with IBD like Crohn’s and Colitis.

  • It provides protection against gut-infections like candidiasis, travellers diarrhea, c-difficile, etc.

  • Stimulates maturation and balancing of the immune system at birth - you don’t want an over-stimulated immune system (autoimmunity), but you also don’t want a weak immune system (always sick).

  • Helps regulate hormone production which impacts weight management, blood sugar control, and heart health.

  • Because of the impact on hormones, a good microbiome is vital to good skin - whether we’re talking about acne, eczema, or psoriasis.  The condition of your skin is a direct reflection of the condition of your gut - remember you have a microbiome on your skin and it's not independent of the bacteria in your gut.

  • Probiotics help with detoxification (especially mercury).

  • The most impressive benefit of probiotics is the support it provides to the brain via the gut-brain axis.  I won’t go into too much detail here, but via corticosteroid hormones, inflammatory cytokines, neurotransmitter production like dopamine and GABA, and via the Vagus nerve which is the longest nerve in the body that goes from the brain to the gut directly, the microbiome has a relationship with each of those pathways. By altering the bacteria we can manipulate your “feel good” hormones, improve cognition and decrease anxiety and depression.

Don't forget to feed those good bacteria that you've just introduced with the probiotic! Intestinal bacteria eat fibre so the more plants you consume, the happier they'll be. If you don't currently eat a lot of plants, start slow and steam your veggies. The best fibre for them? Beans! Again starting slow is key here, 1/8 cup is plenty for the first few weeks of introducing beans, only increase your portion when you feel like you are digesting them well.

Having a strong and stable microbiome is the foundation for the other organ systems in your body to function optimally.  As most of my patients can attest - probiotics are almost always part of my treatment plan and there are very few companies that I recommend due to the huge variability in quality and efficacy.

If you’re always bloated or gassy, have acne, catch colds and flu easily, or your hormones aren’t balanced, a probiotic might be beneficial - of course always consult with your health care provider to ensure it is safe and appropriate in your case.

Dr. Caroline Méthé is a medically trained, naturopathic doctor in the Greater Toronto Area.  As a professional primary health care practitioner with a holistic approach, she consults with patients of all ages at her clinic. Her approach as a Naturopathic Doctor in Canada treating children, digestive concerns and running a general family practice is to focus on root-caused diagnosis followed by effective, evidence-based treatment plans.