Our digestive tract is basically one long tube running through our body. This tube is comprised of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines and anus. This tube is pinched closed by your mouth, anus and certain sphincters along the digestive tract.
As you know, our environment is naturally filled with billions of bacteria. And it is our digestive tract that is the first line of defense in preventing bacteria from the outside world into our bloodstream. Our gut contains a very sophisticated immune system that makes the environmental bacteria that we consume through air, food and water are not given free reign into our bloodstream.
Understanding the Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiome and the immune system have a symbiotic relationship. The presence of microorganisms within the gastrointestinal tract helps to develop and maintain the immune response, with profound far-reaching effects.
The Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT) thinly lines the mucosal layer of your gut wall and acts as a ‘filter’ and detection system for everything that travels through your gut and could be potentially absorbed into your bloodstream.
The GALT is richly populated with special clusters of immune cells known as ‘Peyer’s Patches’. The role of the cells within these patches is to identify harmful bacteria within your gut, ensnare these potential pathogens and disarm them before they can enter your bloodstream (and push them through your system to be excreted!) These Peyer’s Patches also stimulate a chain of immune reactions that stop further movement of invading bacteria throughout your gut lining. Ultimately, this defense system is extremely important to stop harmful bacteria from invading your body!
Contributors of ‘Bad’ Bacteria in the Gut
Many factors in our modern environment negatively impact our gut health. From a young age, most of us are given antibiotic medications, which interfere with our microbiome. While antibiotics are designed to attack pathogenic (bad) bacteria, they indiscriminately wipe out our good bacteria as well!
Pesticides, herbicides and other agricultural chemicals have similar actions to antibiotics. Sadly, these residual chemicals wind up in our gut and impact the strength/effectiveness of our friendly bacteria. Remember, agricultural run-off makes its way into our waterways, so unfiltered water can also be contaminated with compounds that also reduce our gut flora.
Being ‘overly-hygienic’ can also contribute to imbalances in your gut flora. In particular, anti-bacterial sprays, lotions and cleansers (household and personal) can unfavorably impact your microbiome. Our bodies naturally require some exposure to dirt and germs to build a healthy, robust immune system but an over-emphasis on ‘cleanliness’ can interfere with this natural process. And, in today’s environment, due to the COVID-19 virus, there is very heavy emphasis on frequent hand washing, frequent use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers and chemical cleansers to mitigate the spread of the virus. Although necessary, it can be expected that our body’s gut health will be compromised as a result.
What About the ‘Good’ Gut Bacteria?
The ‘good’ bacteria in your gut works to keep our gut in tip-top condition! From an immunity perspective, having plenty of the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut helps to keep the ‘bad’ bacteria in check. When ‘bad’ bacteria are too prolific, they smother the lining of your bowel so that the sentry cells within the Peyer’s patches cannot perform their task of protecting you properly. The result? You are more vulnerable to pathogens that you pick up from the environment and may find yourself getting sick more often than you’d like!
Good bacteria also ferment fiber and resistant starch to form a fatty acid called butyrate. Butyrate increases blood flow to your gut wall, which is great for healing! This fatty acid also provides essential energy to the cells that line your colon and is extremely important for the repair and growth of healthy colon cells. This is one of the reasons why resistant starch and fiber is associated with lower rates of colon cancer.
A healthy gut flora has been shown to reduce inflammation, a key factor that is associated with many diseases. These include everything from the common cold, through to cardiovascular diseases, cognitive issues, arthritis and even cancer. Probiotic treatments have even been shown to assist with certain types of eczema!
The infographic below is provided as examples of the impact gut bacteria can have on one’s health. It is not intended to as a fully comprehensive diagram, a diagnostic tool, nor provide medical advice of any kind.
So, What Does All This Mean?
There is no doubt that the health of our gut plays a vital role in the overall health of our body. It is not surprising to know that our eating habits, environment and lifestyle play important roles in our body’s health. Realizing that that the choices we make as to what we consume, products we use, where and how we live have a direct correlation to our health can be a bit overwhelming. And can be even more daunting when we realize we have the ability to significantly influence and change the make-up of our gut microbiome.
However, our bodies, like any intricate machine, have to be taken care of and maintained to ensure they work well for the long-haul. Unfortunately, most of us just don’t put in the effort to manage or maintain until something breaks down. Now that you know more about how your body works and that you have direct influence on your overall health, what will you do with this information? What will you change or do to improve your own health?
If you have questions or are experiencing digestive issues or concerns, we encourage you to contact one of our Gastroenterologists or your General Practitioner.