Did you know…
- There are more bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract than there are cells in the body
- The bacteria in our gut weigh approximately 4 lbs
- There are an estimated 400-1000 different species of bacteria in our GI system
- Just like we belong to one of four blood types, recent research shows we can be classified into 3 bacterial ecosystems.
- Some liken gut flora to a “forgotten organ” due to the extensive role they play
There are good guys and bad guys in the world of the gut. When we’re first born, our bodies are quite pristine and the digestive tract is sterile. Immediately we are presented with breast milk and environmental factors, both of which begin colonizing our digestive tract with bacteria – most of them beneficial and harmless. As we grow older and are introduced to new substances and bacteria species, more species colonize the gut. They are the beginning of our natural defense system.
What is dysbiosis?
Symbiosis translates to ‘living in harmony.’ Dysbiosis is the opposite, it’s when the bad guys take over. It was first identified by Dr. Eli Metchnikoff in the early 20th century, who won a Nobel Prize for his work. It essentially means there is an imbalance of microbial colonies. This is most common in the digestive tract, but can happen anywhere there is an exposed mucous membrane, such as the skin. The bacteria maintain a harmonious balance in a healthy digestive tract by keeping each other in check so no one specific strain can dominate. What happens in a disturbed system is a strain’s decreased efficiency at checks and balances. This can result in one colony becoming dominant and one becoming weaker. It instigates a chronic imbalance, debilitates the good guys and compromises our system as a whole. The good guys are imperative. They help us with digestion, absorption, produce vitamins, control growth of harmful microogranisms, and keep the intestinal cells well fed by creating short chain fatty acids. Sometimes we simply need to reinforce the good guys in order to get rid of the bad guys. We can support them a great deal via nutrition and natural supplements. It’s one of the first steps you can take to get a healthier GI tract…and healthier skin, stronger immune system, more energy, better moods…the list goes on.
When dysbiosis exists, we may fall prey typically harmless microbes that can lead to serious health concerns. Elizabeth Lipski, PhD cites dysboisis as a cause of arthritis, autoimmune illness, vitamin B deficiency, chronic fatigue syndrome, cystic acne, eczema, food allergies and food sensitivities, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis and more.
- Digestive issues common in IBS, bloating, belching, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, bad breath, abdominal pain, indigestion
- Lactose intolerance
- Chronic fatigue
- Joint pain
- Yeast infections
- Lowered libido
- Mental fog
- Sugar cravings (including alcohol)
- Weight gain
- Skin problems such as acne or hives
- Nail fungi
- Hyperactivity; learning and behavioral disorders
So who are the bad guys? There are four major players: fungus/yeast, parasites, viruses and pathogenic bacteria.
Overseas Travel & Contaminated Food and Water
Parasites are generally found in contaminated food and water and can be obtained during international travel. You can ingest contaminated food and water traveling or at home, as so much produce is brought in internationally. Viruses in the digestive tract are caught in the same way a common cold is, so better sanitation is your best defense, as antibiotics do not cure viruses.
One of the most common causes of dysbiosis is from taking antibiotics There are certainly times when antibiotics are absolutely necessary for your health, but the Center for Disease Control reports that antibiotics are grossly over-prescribed. The antibiotics kill off the bad guys, but they kill off all of the good guys too – the gut flora that are keeping us armed with a healthy immune system. Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may be left to grow and multiply. Over prescribing patients has caused antibiotic resistance, which is now one of the world’s most pressing health problems. You must use your best judgement, spend time with you doctor and ask questions about potential alternative options when accepting an antibiotic regimen. Sometimes it is without a doubt imperative, other times you may have options. If you do take antibiotics, make sure you take a powerful probiotic during and after your medication round. Keep in mind you can also get antibiotics from the food you eat: just remember whatever that cow or chicken was given is being passed along to you. Be proactive with the food you eat and start thinking about where it came from.
Increased Use of NSAIDS
Abusing non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin, advil, indomethacin, etc) inhibits growth of healthy bacteria and can cause leaky gut, which can cause a bacterial imbalance.
Incomplete or Delayed Digestion
Chronic constipation from a digestive disorder, such as IBS or leaky gut, will contribute to the imbalance of flora.
An overgrowth of fungus and yeast can be caused by a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar. Candida, a type of yeast, is the most common condition caused by a sugary and starchy diet. Candida lives off of sugar. This means any sugar you eat feeds it. Remeber that all starches that get broken down as sugar, including: grains, sugary fruit, starchy vegetables and lactose (sugar in milk). It’s also important to make sure you get enough fiber in your diet, as diets high in protein but low in vegetables and fiber have been linked to dysbiosis. Most people have had success by overhauling their diet.
Elevated Hormone Levels
Pregnancy, use of hormone elevating drugs, including birth control and steroid hormones, can all spark an imbalance of gut flora. Chronic stress elevates stress hormones which will also wreak havoc on your immunity, making you more susceptible to an imbalance of gut flora.
Living in a damp, foggy climate, presence of mold or fungus in the home and exposure to toxic metals can increase susceptibility.
The myriad of dysbiosis symptoms can be overwhelming. A very successful way to determine if you have Candida is to work with a nutritionist who can help you pinpoint what is indicative of dysbiosis, and what is not. Working with your health practitioner, make sure you include a full health history that includes your past use of antibiotics, chemical exposures, drug therapies, digestion habits and daily diet.
A certified nutritionist can order tests that help determine the presence of Candida, which is often the culprit of dysbiosis. The Urine Organic Acids – D Arabinitol (a Candida metabolite and neurotoxin) is helpful in determining the presence of the yeast Candida. The Comprehensive Stool and Digestive Analysis test (CDSA) will give you a more comprehensive look at all your gut bacteria – including the presence of Klebsiella, Candida, bacterial balance/imbalance, pathogenic bacteria, parasites, digestive abilities (absorption of nutrients) and gliadin antibodies (gluten).
The first thing you can do is overhaul your diet. A diet to heal dysbiosis can be difficult both physically and emotionally. Working with a nutritionist will help as serious withdrawal may occur. The most important part of your new diet will be to initially eliminate sugary and starchy foods. For a period of time (determine with your health professional) it may help to eliminate completely: sugar, starchy vegetables, fruit and fruit juice, processed foods and meats, all mushrooms, vinegar, aged cheeses, alcohol, fruit juice and and dried foods. More nutrition tips, therapeutic levels of supplements and further suggestions can be found on my healing page.