If you’ve opened a magazine, read a news article, or listened to a podcast lately, I’m sure you’ve heard about the “microbiome,” or gut microbes. But, not many people actually understand how the microbiome influences what happens in your body. The first thing to understand is that all of the systems in the body are interconnected. When one is a little off, it can trigger a ripple effect, potentially causing problems in what seems like a completely unrelated area. Such is the case with your digestive system.
THE MICROBIOME EXPLAINED
The microbiome is an ecosystem of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa living in your digestive system, a system that is as unique as a fingerprint. These “good” microbes, that you’ve had since birth, work closely with your body’s own cells to enhance digestion, defend against potential invaders, inactivate toxins, regulate hormones, and even make B vitamins. They also help keep dangerous bacteria and yeast from taking over and wreaking havoc.
YOUR FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
Your intestinal lining acts as a guard for your body. The lining of your intestine has immune cells, hormones, and nerves and monitors everything that comes into the body for potential danger or useful information. A healthy gut correlates directly to a healthy immune system and vice versa. The lining also houses the largest concentration of mood-altering chemicals like serotonin. In fact, the gut has been called “the second brain.”
A FAULTY GUT
When our belly is not functioning well, we don’t function well. From acid reflux, indigestion, and bloating to constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel disease, and many other intestinal complaints, the gut influences everything. But sometimes these symptoms that started in the gut influence other areas of the body. Headaches, joint pain, acne, mood disorders, rashes, and fatigue are some of the most common. Healthy levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut can reduce anxiety and depression, and even combat the effects of stress.
Have you ever taken antibiotics and had an overgrowth of yeast? That’s because the antibiotics have killed the good bacteria in your gut as well as the infection that’s plaguing you. Your microbiome can also be damaged by environmental chemicals like pesticides, common medications like steroids, and a diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, or processed foods. A healthy diet rich in organic produce and a daily dose of probiotics, or friendly bacteria, can go a long way in restoring your healthy gut and boost your immunity. In addition to a healthy microbiome, you need healthy digestion. Age, stress, too much alcohol, and even not taking the time to eat in a relaxed environment can all severely impair digestion and absorption of essential nutrients. Poor digestion can also foster bacterial overgrowth in the gut, contributing to bloating and discomfort, and intolerance to many foods.
THE LEAKY GUT
When the protective barrier of the intestinal wall has been damaged by an imbalanced microbiome, stress, illness, or chemical injury, we call this dysfunction “leaky gut.” Leaky Gut (or “increased intestinal permeability”) has been implicated in immune dysfunction and systemic inflammation, increasing the risk of developing chronic disease. It has also been linked to autoimmune disease, including thyroiditis and arthritis. Any significant stress on the body can trigger leaky gut allowing potentially dangerous bacteria and other substances to enter the circulation. Once your gut has become “leaky,” you are at risk of developing food sensitivities, which can perpetuate the problem.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Humans are complicated creatures. But to be healthy, we can’t let things like poor diet, late meals, rushed eating, food sensitivities, and stress all get in the way. To achieve optimal health, it’s important to understand and respect how your digestive system is connected to immunity, energy, mood, and long-term wellness. Think about not only what you’re eating but how you’re eating. Try to pack fresh vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats into your diet rather than alcohol, sugar and refined carbohydrates. Sit down to eat a meal. Your body and your gut will thank you.
ABOUT DR. BIRCHENOUGH
Katherine Birchenough was the fourth MD in the state of South Carolina to be certified through the Institute for Functional Medicine. A South Carolina native, Dr. Birchenough is a University of South Carolina School of Medicine graduate, board-certified in pediatrics and emergency medicine, and has recently devoted herself full-time to her wellness practice. Dr. Birchenough practiced traditional medicine for more than 12 years, diagnosing and treating diseases but not really getting to the root cause. Over the years, she watched as unhealthy environments and poor lifestyle choices affected the health of her peers and her patients, at one point even herself, and knew that something had to give. She realized the pursuit of health, beyond just the absence of disease, is a specialty in and of itself but wasn’t available to traditional medical students. This realization brought her to a new career path in functional medicine and has fueled her passion to treat the patient, not just the symptoms.