Hi Sandra, Everyone seems to be talking about the importance of the gut and how our gut bacteria are so influential to our health. Are they really all that important, and if so, what can we do to keep them healthy?
Hi Emily, great question!
The idea that the digestive system is at the center of human health is not a new one. Hippocrates, the Greek philosopher considered to be the father of modern medicine, is believed to have said "all disease begins in the gut". Early medical systems such as Traditional European Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and Tibetan Medicine all point to the health of the gut as a critical factor in the overall vitality of the person.
What is new however, is the level of scientific research that has been more recently directed toward gut health, specifically into what researchers are terming the 'microbiota' - the collection of microbes living on and within us, and the 'microbiome' which refers to their collective genes.
This research has revealed that our bodies host a microbial opulation estimated to be in the region of 100 trillion - approximately 10 times the number of human cells we have. These microbes are everywhere - on our skin, inside our mouths and on our tongues, with the largest contingent of them being found deep within the intestine. Whilst we have traditionally thought of microbes as something 'bad' that need to be removed via antibiotics and antibacterial hand wash, we are now realising that their relationship with us is far more complex and directly influences our risk of disease. Research is showing that a loss of diversity in the microbial population, or an imbalance of 'bad' and 'good' microbes can predispose us to everything from obesity to allergies.
Healing the gut
As evidence mounts that our microbial population can exert a significant influence over our health, many people are asking what actions can be taken to improve gut health. Researchers have been careful to avoid grand statements - this is still an emerging field and it's not all worked out yet - however, it does appear that it may be possible to reshape or cultivate our gut bacteria in our best interests.
Measures to protect this precious ecosystem include minimising excessive prescription drug use, especially broad-spectrum antibiotics and use proven plant medicines instead; minimize the exposure to environmental toxins; choosing organic produce free of herbicides and pesticides; opting for natural household cleansers and body products, and eating a wide array of fibrous plant food which acts as a food source for beneficial microbes.
The re-emergence of traditional fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and miso also reflects our increased understanding of the importance of microorganisms to overall health. The development of strain-specific probiotics for the treatment of various diseases is still ongoing, but including varied fermented foods on a daily basis can be done with little cost and much benefit. Start slowly if these wonderful foods are new to you - begin with a teaspoon a day, gradually increasing the quantity up to a cup or so daily.
Herbal medicine & gut health
Medical herbalists have also been watching gut research with interest. Recent evidence suggests that our gut microbes may prove to be one of the main ways in which herbal medicines act on human health via a reshaping of the microbial population. The right microbes may also be key to the efficacy of herbal medicines, processing constituents in the intestine to form medicinally active metabolites. For many centuries we have known these plants have worked to improve our health, but not always known exactly how they did so. It's likely gut microbes have some role to play here too. Medicinal plants that minimize inflammation in the gut such as licorice, myrrh, calendula, goldenseal, turmeric, slippery elm and aloe; others that feed the beneficial microbes such as dandelion root, chicory and ginger; and bitter tonics that promote liver health such as St. Mary's Thistle, Globe Artichoke, dandelion, peppermint and yarrow are all important to maintain a healthy digestive system and balanced microbiome.
Both traditional knowledge and modern scientific understanding agree that the health of the gut plays a key role in our overall health and vitality. However, at this stage of our understanding, the recipe for optimizing our gut health is less of a scientific miracle and much closer to commonsense healthy living - eating plenty of real whole food, especially plants, and minimising our exposure to synthetic medications, chemical and pesticides that can wreak havoc on our microbial diversity.
Robinson, C., Bohannan, B., & Young, V (2010). From Structure to Function: the Ecology of Host-Associated Microbial Communities. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 74(3), 453-476.doi: 10.1128/MMBR.00014-10