Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, a gastroenterologist discusses the importance of balancing the good and bad bacteria in your body, and how it affects your digestive system.
So here’s a startling fact: you’re toting around colonies, big ones. We’re talking full blown empires comprised of trillions (that’s a number followed by 12 zeros, fyi) of bacteria. In your gut. Yep. Anywhere from four to seven or so pounds of those little buggers.
And that’s a good thing.
So what exactly are these burgeoning colonies of bacteria — also called the gut microbiome or flora, and considered so important that some now call it the “new organ”— doing down there? A lot, according to Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, a Roper St. Francis affiliated gastrointestinologist.
Gut flora (most of which inhabits the intestine and colon within the digestive tract) processes food, absorbs calories and nutrients, builds and bolsters the immune system, produces vitamins and much more. After we eat something and it cruises through our digestive tract, our gut bacteria decide whether they should absorb it, or let it pass through, or to attack it. To do their work, the microbes act in tandem, so keeping them in balance is crucial.
When the gut bacteria are out of balance, a condition called dysbiosis can arise, and can lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well as other unpleasantness. According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, IBS affects between 25 and 45 million people in the U.S., and recent studies show dysbiosis might also play a role in cancer, diabetes, asthma, autism, allergies and obesity.
So what causes gut bacterial imbalance? One culprit is likely processed food — food that’s loaded with artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners or hydrogenated oil. “The preservatives and additives found in processed food may be poisoning certain gut bacteria,” says Dr. Bulsiewicz. “Given the modern-day diet, we’re all dysbiotic compared to our ancestors even a century ago.”
Beyond food additives, what we’re not eating also has impact. Before refrigerators and cross-country shipping, fresh vegetables were only available during harvest seasons, so people canned and preserved vegetables using fermentation to “put it up” for winter eating. “Fermented food is filled with probiotics that give anaerobic bacteria, an important bacteria found in the colon, a boost,” says Dr. Bulsiewicz.
And modern medicine with its use, and some fear, overuse of, antibiotics delivers a huge hit to the gut microbiome. While antibiotics save lives and have changed the medical landscape, they also change the gut landscape, killing off healthy bacteria within the body. “A five-day regimen of the common antibiotic Cipro can wipe out a third of your gut bacteria,” says Dr. Bulsiewicz.
More and more of us – up to 60 and 70 million Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2014 – suffered from at least one digestive disease, including IBS and Crohn’s disease.
Here are some guidelines for keeping your gut healthy:
- Eat foods with probiotics (like bacteria cultures), including yogurt, kefir and fermented foods like tempeh, miso, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut.
- Also eat prebiotics — foods that support probiotics: garlic, leeks, bananas, artichokes, asparagus, onions.
- Reduce consumption of packaged and artificial foods.
- Take antibiotics only when essential and properly prescribed.
- Wash hands with soap and water when possible, limiting antibacterial soaps.