The Wild Life of Our Gut

Screen shot 2014-04-03 at 1.25.15 PMDid you know that our insides are really our outsides? That’s right. From our pie hole all the way to our poop shoot, as food enters and exits the body, it doesn’t actually go inside our body until it is absorbed through the walls of the gastrointestinal tract (all those tubes our food travels through between our mouth and our anus).  The entire GI tract can be viewed as a food translator.  Food enters one end, gets rearranged and converted into various molecules, then the excrement is defecated. Lovely.

What I find truly fascinating, and utterly mind blowing, is that we are swimming in bacteria, germs, and microbes, ‘inside’ our gut.  So much so that we are actually only 10% human.  For every human cell there are 10 microbes, 100 trillion strong.  Some of these microbes are moochers, some are barterers, and some are criminals that cause illness. Apparently, what keeps us happy and healthy is the proper balance of this community of interdependent, collaborating mini creatures.  The gut microbiome is so important it is even considered to be an organ.


Helpful Terms

If you are not a very science-y individual or it’s simply been a while, here are a few definitions that may help while reading this post:

  • Microbiota- All the microbes in a community
  • Microbiome- All of the above microbes collective genes
  • Fecal Transplant- Installing a healthy person’s microbiota into a sick persons gut
  • Prebiotic- A food for microbes. Inulin, oligosaccharides, pectin
  • Probiotic- Populations of beneficial microbes introduced into the body
  • Epithelium- Intestinal lining that plays a critical role in protecting us from infection and inflammation
  • Gut- Sometimes referring to the entire gastrointestinal tract, but mostly the coils of the intestines
  • Soluble Fiber- Indigestible food that feeds the gut microbiota
  • Resistant Starch- Food that ‘resists’ digestion and moves on to the colon where gut flora turns it into short chain fatty acid (SCFA)
  • Butyrate- A SCFA that is the main energy source for colonic cells
  • Polyphenols- Naturally occurring compounds found largely in fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, and nuts. More than 8,000 different phenolic compounds have been identified in plants, and have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic effects.

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The Inner Universe of Our Gut

Not only is our gut microbiome an organ, with it’s own little universe, it is also home to 99% of our genetic information which is a constantly changing and reshaping microbial universe, and the genetic codes of our gut microcosm may even be affecting our own genome.  An emerging field of study, called Metagenomics, is studying just how our microbiota, and it’s genetic pool, play together in our gut cosmos. Comparing our genetic makeup to these creatures inhabiting our body is like comparing the earth to the solar system.  We are way out-gunned.

Not to fear, we are not being attacked by inner ‘space invader’ germs, we are actually a part of them, and they are a part of us. As a matter of fact, we are so dependent upon these microbes that without them we cannot exist (they were here first by the way).  We live and work together in beautiful harmony. If you look at a cross section of our intestines it is difficult to tell where the microbes begin and the the gut ends. So the hand sanitizer and microbial soaps, that so many of us obsessively use, not only doesn’t even begin to attack these little buggers, it can actually hurt us by killing the good stuff. Not to mention the antibiotics that strip our gut microbiome so severely that some sources say it can take up to 4 years to get it all back in order again.

These microbes affect our health in ways that we are only recently unearthing.  Research about how they control our mental and physical health is just beginning to develop, and like the cosmic universe, it is still mostly undiscovered.  The trendy science of the day, the ‘gut-brain axis’ (learn more about that here),  is revealing how a disturbed inner universe can cause neuropsychiatric disorders, depression, eating disorders, and autism. Plus, infections, obesity, auto immune, and other chronic diseases are being linked to a disordered internal ecosystem.  I particularly like the mouse study (check it out here), where they did a fecal transplant (becoming more common in humans, and they really are not sure why and how it works), and inserted skinny human poop into fat mice, and the fat mice lost weight!  I can see it now, people clambering to their doctor for a script of the of the powerful ‘Twiggy’ suppository.

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 The Good the Bad and the Ugly

So how can poop, and it’s lush garden of microscopic life, be so closely linked to our mental and physical health? Well, there’s the good the bad and the ugly when it comes to gut bacteria (more science-y words):

  • The good guys are the commensal bacteria, and they aid in digestion by breaking down food that is seemingly indigestible, they also supply nutrients, and defend against invaders.  Think Pac-Man. Or better yet, orchestras, being led by concert masters and conductors, and you are the composer of the notes (food).
  • The bad guys are the pathobionts. The normal gut bacteria that trigger disease. I like the visual of a garden here. There is a flourishing flora and greenery that keeps the weeds at bay. But when something goes amiss the weeds take over and normal bacteria give rise to dis-ease.
  • The ugly guys are the pathogens.  These are the guys that simply don’t belong in our gut and have invaded our inner space.

So now you may have this vision that there are microscopic bugs crawling around throughout all the cells and tissues of your body. No worries, for the most part these microorganisms don’t leave your gut.  They can, however, tell the immune cells (our inner warriors), what to do. Most (70%), of the immune cells are found in our intestines and they disperse throughout the body.  Plus, these little microbacteria buggers ‘give forth’ molecules (think parts of proteins and carbohydrates), that leave the gut and scatter throughout your body. Also, the ‘gut-brain axis’, I mentioned earlier, may be controlled by molecular mimicry. This is when the microorganisms do a fake-out and our body can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, so the antibodies (bad guy neutralizers), may end up attacking both of them thus, throwing off the gut-to-brain control center.  This confused relationship between our body and it’s miniature reciprocal inhabitants, some believe, may be behind the increase in auto-immune disease in recent years.

It is all so fascinating, this inner-outer world of microscopic bugs that may be controlling our health, brains, and even our genes in ways we can’t even begin to fathom.  This wonderful video made by Youreka Science does an amazing job of simplifying how it all works:

How To Control Our Inner Wild Life

Having a healthy gut really boils down to eating REAL food, vegetables, and fruits.  Especially fresh and organic, as they are teaming with bacteria from the soil, and eat all of it, not just the tips and tasty bits. Eating them can make quick changes in our gut bacteria.  What was once thought to take days, weeks, or years can actually take just hours.  This makes sense when you think about our ancestral diet and how quickly we had to adapt to a change in diet depending on what was available daily and also seasonally.  Soluble fiber,  from veggies and fruits, is the the best nourishment for the bacteria in our gut.  If we don’t get enough then the bacteria get hungry and can start eating the mucus lining of our intestines, ouch.  Polyphenols also play an important role in gut health.  Here is a list of foods that are high in polyphenol.  Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir may also be beneficial.

There has been much talk lately about Resistant Starch and it’s benefit on gut health. RS produces butyrate which is a super-food for gut bacteria. More about butyrate here.  Foods such as uncooked potatoes, green bananas, cooked then cooled potatoes and rice, are just a few ways to eat more RS. It seems about 30-40 grams per day is the recommended ideal amount. Check out this chart by and this post by Mark Sisson for more information.

There are extensive changes in gut microbiome during major life events such as: being born (yes, we get more diverse and important microbes if we are born vaginally rather than a C-section, and also if we are breast fed), during the transition from breast milk to solid food, the onset of puberty, and also lactation. Hormones also affect our gut health and contribute to why the above life changes are so impactful.  Other things that affect the health of our intestinal ensemble are geographic location, genetics, age, foods, drugs, lifestyle and even what animals we live with.  Having a healthy microbiome can also prevent ‘leaky gut’,  here Chris Kresser does an amazing job of explaining leaky gut, and how it could even be making us fat.

Find Out What’s in Your Gut

Send in samples and get a full report about what’s in your gut via The American Gut Project. Not only will they tell you what’s in your gut, but they also use the results to map the species living in you and compare it to other people from around the world.  Here is a picture of my sample. It looks a bit confusing, but they do a wonderful job of explaining what it all means when they return the report.



Connect With Nature To Heal Your Gut

According to Rob Dunn The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today

We all need to stop destroying the natural environment around us, and inside of us, and let our bodies get back to the symbiotic wild life.’

So it isn’t simply that we now live our lives indoors, separated from nature, but more that we have changed how we interact with our entire ecological surroundings. We have gone from a time when we were totally immersed in nature, living in concert with it, to being totally removed from it. The magnitude of the ramifications of  this disconnect, with the way we evolved to live and thrive with nature, is having a domino affect on our health.  We need to somehow let our bodies remember who we are by restoring the essential components of what used to be, the elements (and gut bacteria), that we can’t live without.

One thing I have discovered, during my research into the gut microbiome, is that the scientists are just learning about the how’s and why’s of the gut cosmos.  This is an emerging science that is in it’s infancy.  Here are some of the resources I used for this ‘tip of the iceberg’ post that may help you in your search for your inner universe: