There has been some exciting research in recent years around the link between our gut bacteria and our health. There is more and more scientific research coming out everyday to suggest that your gut bacteria (or microbiota) and the health of your gut lining affect your mind, mood and body in ways from minor (skin and energy) to major (chronic inflammation and disease). Early life circumstances such as the method in which we were born either vaginally or by C section can further affect the way these microbes develop as well as whether any medications were prescribed to the infant or the mother during this early time. It also appears that modern life and the way we live, where we are living, what we are eating and even things like how much stress we are under are having a huge impact on our microbiota balance (good bacteria vs bad bacteria). The good news is, the more we understand about the importance of keeping our guts healthy the more we can influence these factors to improve our health.
How we are born affects our Gut:
When we are born the makeup of our gut microbes are determined largely by whether we were born vaginally or by C section. A babies gut microbes from a vaginal birth are made up of skin, vaginal and faecal bacteria whereas babies delivered via C section are largely made up of skin only. Acquiring the right combination of these microbes at birth have a major impact on the developing health of the baby, these microbes that we are acquire or do not acquire can affect the likelihood of developing diabetes, obesity and some cancers. As more and more research are released about this topic, the latest findings tell us that gut microbe composition is associated with weight, cardio vascular disease and diabetes. In fact, the same studies have shown that babies who are born via C section or who have been exposed to heavy loads of medications are more likely to be obese or overweight by up to 50%. The science into this topic is so advanced that researchers can predict with up to 90% accuracy whether a baby will be lean or obese just by testing the microbes in your gut.
The good news is, if these microbes are missing or lost for any reason the baby can acquire them later in life thru breast feeding or specially designed pro-biotics which replicate the HMO structures found in breastmilk.
How where we live affects our gut:
According to Dr Rob Knight (Director of the Centre for Microbiome Innovation) we have over 100 trillion microbes living inside of our gut. To give you a better understanding of what this looks like, imagine if you took a blade of grass and planted it for every microbe living in your gut, there would be enough of these blades of grass to fill 1 million football fields.
The purpose of these microbes have several functions they help us to:
- Digest our food
- Help educate our immune system
- Help us resist disease
- May even be affecting our behaviour
Interestingly, as our bodies adapt to life in a modern society we are losing some of our normal microbes. In conjunction with this loss of microbes there are quite a few diseases that are skyrocketing in developing nations around the world. We are seeing a prevalence for higher rates of obesity, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, allergies and asthma.
Every one of these diseases and many others related to metabolism and weight and auto-immunity are linked to a loss of healthy diversity in the gut.
According to Rob Knight immigrants that arrive from South America and move to the U.S lose 20% of their gut micro diversity within a short time of moving there. This loss of diversity is largely due to humans spending 90% of their time indoors and a decrease in the variety of plant based foods we are consuming.
Why? We are breathing in air from artificial and mechanical ventilation systems which have a completely different ecosystem from those you find outdoors. Our outdoor counterparts have a greater and differing range of micro-organisms where this bacteria can colonise.
How what we eat affects our gut:
The food we eat plays an essential role in maintaining the diversity and proper functioning of our gut microbiota. When talking about gut microbiota it could be said ‘we are what we eat’ as what we consume feeds off the trillions of bacteria living in our digestive system. The bad bacteria in out gut thrives on processed foods, sugars, alcohol and other genetically modified foods. Our good bacteria thrives on a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, dairy and protein.
Interestingly, a study by Angela Genoni (Edith Cowan University, Australia) found that following a Paleo diet for more than a year is associated with unfavourable changes in gut microbiota composition and increased levels of a compound (trimethylamine N-oxide) an organic compound involved in the development of cardiovascular disease. This was compared to individuals who followed a balanced diet that included grains, legumes and dairy which promoted the healthy balance of these healthy bacteria.
Probiotics vs Prebiotics:
Probiotics sometimes or ‘good gut bacteria’ are micro-organisms found in the human digestive tract that improve the balance of healthy bacteria. Including probiotics and probiotic rich foods in our diets have shown to help reduce digestive symptoms such as constipation and bloating, restore gut flora after taking a course of antibiotics, after a bout of diarrhoea, during times of stress and when travelling where food and water borne illness is a possibility. Try including these probiotic fermented foods in your diet where possible, yoghurts, fermented drinks such as kombucha and kefir, miso and fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi.
Prebiotics or sometimes referred to as ‘fermentable fibre’ are a type of fibre that feed probiotics. They promote the growth and function of different types of good bacteria in the gut. Prebiotics are naturally found in vegetables such as garlic and onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes, bananas, plums, apples and in grains and cereals such as bran and in nuts like almonds. For this reason, vegetables, fruits and cereals should be part of a balanced and healthy diet.
How what we eat affects our Mental Health:
The gut has often been referred to as the ‘second brain’ due to it’s production of serotonin (happy hormone) which assists in regulating our bowel movements. This is separate from the serotonin production which occurs in our brains which is believed to regulate mood and social behaviour.
Researchers from the Catholic University in Leuven, in Belgium have found ‘most human gut bacteria do produce neurotransmitters, which are chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that enable communication among neurons, which are the nervous cells in the brain, but also in the enteric nervous system of the gut’. These neurotransmitters are known to influence intestinal functions, but also our mood and behaviour.
Further into this topic Flemish researchers found from the Flemish Gut Flora Project (FGFP) discovered that two genus of bacteria were consistently depleted in the gut microbiota of people who were diagnosed with depression. Whether they were following an anti- depressant treatment did not have any effect on the results. It is important to note that from these studies although they have seen there are two bacteria lacking in the microbiota of people with depression it does not mean that these bacteria cause depression. More studies need to be done to assess causality of this topic.
Stress also plays a significant role in altering gut bacteria. Stress causes a decrease in beneficial bacteria and an increase in potentially disease-causing microorganisms. It can also cause inflammation, bloating and make stomach ulcers worse. It’s important to have some stress relieving measures at hand if you suffer from serious amounts of stress.
In finality, a balanced and varied diet is the key to optimal gut health combined with psychological and physical ways to manage stress. Most disease and ill health is caused from poor gut health so it is really lends some weight to the saying “your only as healthy as your gut’.
Holistic and Lifestyle Coach and PT
Instagram: Kristy Curtis Health
I remember reading a book by David Gillespie called ‘Sweet Poison’ which totally changed my view on eating processed sugar. This book was written by a 40kg overweight, sleep deprived father of four that had run out of diet options to lose weight. One day he decided to eliminate sugar out of his diet completely and the changes not just physically but mentally to the way he felt was radical. David started to investigate the link between our soaring obesity rates and the worrying diseases that were emerging in the 21st century. He found links between the introduction of processed sugar in the 1940’s and the increase of heart disease and diabetes.
A background of poor health is what also drove Sarah Wilson to quit sugar and start a successful company and movement in the process with her ‘IQuitsugar.com’ online program and books. The I quit sugar movement proved to fill a gap in the market with over 1.5million people in over 113 countries joining her online program to learn the tools to successfully ditch sugar for good. The results from her devotees are astonishing, with some displaying increases in fertility, decreased symptoms of chronic and auto-immune diseases whilst for others it has assisted with the management of diabetes and helped many others lose that stubborn belly fat for good.
So knowing all of this this let’s look at specifically how sugar affects our overall health.
Sugar is stored as excess fat around the mid section:
According to the Heart Foundation (heartfoundation.org.au) more than 64% of Australians are overweight or obese and more than 1 in 4 children. These are worrying statistics as being overweight lends itself to the likelihood of having chronic diseases such as cardio thoracic diseases and diabetes.
There are 2 types of belly fat the first one is called subcutaneous fat that is fat located just under the skin. Subcutaneous fat is often referred to as ‘ love handles’, ‘saddlebags’ or ‘back fat’. Whilst carrying excess weight around the mid section is not ideal with changes to your diet and moving more it is possible to reduce this area.
The second more concerning fat is called visceral fat which is generally indicated by a ‘pot belly’ or an apple shape. This type of fat is of concern as it is much deeper under the skin and surrounds the vital organs. Visceral fat can cause changes to our hormonal profiles and has links to both cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Sugar may promote cancerous cells and recurrence:
In 1924 there was a German Scientist named Otto Warburg who discovered that cancerous cells need a lot more sugar to grow and divide than normal cells this became known as the ‘Warburg Effect’. Cancerous cells metabolise sugar differently to normal cells and there has been a lot of research as of late to discover new treatments for this process.
Let it be known however that eating sugar directly does not cause cancer however, there is an indirect link between cancer risk and sugar. We know this because having a diet high in sugar lends itself to being overweight or obese. According to the Cancer Research UK, being overweight or obese increases the risk of 13 different types of cancer. In fact, after smoking, obesity is the second most preventable form of cancer in the UK.
There have been some further research groups which looked at the recurrence rates of women with breast cancer. A ‘PREDIMED’ study followed 300 breast cancer survivors for 3 years, 199 eating a ‘normal’ healthy diet as advised by dieticians and 108 eating a Mediterranean style diet comprising of 4 serves of vegetables, 3 serves of fruit, 1 serve of whole grains and plenty of olive oil, fish and seafood 3-4 times a week and a little red meat.
11 patients experienced a recurrence whilst on the normal diet whilst no one on the Mediterranean diet underwent a relapse. The Mediterranean diet focuses on eating whole foods including vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fish and olive oil whilst being low in red and processed meat and alcohol is kept to a minimum. Whilst only a small study it is promising.
Sugar can damage your heart:
It has been noted that sugar can cause contribute to cardiovascular diseases, however, a 2013 article in the Journal of American Heart Association displayed strong evidence that sugar can actually affect the pumping mechanism of your heart and could increase the risk of heart failure. The findings specifically pinpointed a molecule from sugar called glucose metabolite glucose 6-phosphate (G6P) that was responsible for changes in the muscle protein of the heart. These changes could eventually lead to heart failure.
High sugar diets can age you:
I used to remember my mum telling my in my youth that drinking lots of alcohol will age you. I used to think this was her one of her many attempts of trying to keep me away from it. Now I understand that the sugar content in alcohol and many processed foods ages our cells and causes many of them to die prematurely. Excess processed sugar can cause dark circles around your eyes, wrinkles, dehydrate your skin and can fast track the ageing process.
Basically, sugar bonds with proteins in your body in a process called glycation. They also harden collagen and elastin, and prevent your body from making more. All these effects mean your skin looses elasticity, lines and wrinkles start to set in, and signs of visible ageing become more apparent.
Beware Sugar is hidden in most things that we eat:
Whilst many of us strive to avoid eating processed sugar like chocolates, lollies, cakes and pastries sugar is also in a lot of everyday foods that we consume. For example dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, cream, butter, ice cream and cheese all contain ‘lactose’ which is a sugar found in dairy products. Whilst this is a more natural occurring sugar than say the sugar found in biscuits it still is made up of the same composition of fructose and glucose.
So basically, whether it’s in a piece of fruit, a fizzy drink or a pastry, sugar is made up of the same two components: fructose and glucose. The molecule structure and composition of sugar molecules is the same no matter where they come from. Let’s not get confused that the sugar found in cake has the same effect on the body as say the sugar found in fruit (which it doesn’t). For one thing, fruit offers good stuff like vitamins, antioxidants and water whilst cakes, lollies and biscuit offer zero nutritional benefits.
When it comes to choosing what to eat the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘everything in moderation’ couldn’t ring truer. It’s important to ‘eat the rainbow’ when it comes to a healthy mix of fruits and vegetables so we get all of our essential vitamins and minerals plus the all important fibre requirements to aid digestion. Sweet processed treats and alcohol should be limited to special occasions or on the weekends. In the health and wellness world we educate our clients to understand that 70% of how you look is what you are eating and drinking and the other 30% consists of what you are ‘doing’ .
If you are looking to detox off processed sugar start by making some small changes every week. It could be something as simple as cutting back your alcohol consumption from Monday to Friday or not eating dessert every time you go out for dinner. Over time you will notice your sugar cravings have all but disappeared and you wont even think twice about eating it nor miss it. The benefits of the weight you lose, how much more energy you have and the clarity of your thoughts will be motivation enough to cut back or ditch the sugar for good!