What is a Healthy Gut?

A well-functioning gut with healthy gut flora holds the roots of our health. And, like a tree with sick roots is not going to thrive, the rest of the body cannot thrive without a well functioning digestion system. The bacterial population of the gut – the gut flora – is the soil around these roots, giving them their habitat, protection, support and nourishment.
Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride

The are 400-500 different microbes in the human gut. There is a great deal of difference between the types of strains within the gut of individuals. Drug treatment, poor dietary choices, stress and disease can disturb the natural balance within the gut. The biggest factor that we control on a daily basis is the type of foods we eat. Food will change the environment of the digestive system for better or worse.

Inside and outside our body is a microscopic ecosystem. As with all ecosystems this microbial world is highly organized. Any area open to the environment, such as integumentary, digestive, respiratory and excretory systems, is inhabited by a huge number of microbes living in mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with their host.

The largest number of microbes live in our digestive system. Most of these microbes help us digest our food and also produce vitamins for our use. In fact, we cannot live without them. Like plants protect the soil from erosion, our microbes protect the walls of the gut from outside forces. Our microbes are our first line of defense from outside infectious or poisonous agents.

Before we are born, our gut is sterile. We get our gut flora from our mothers. As a baby passes through the birth canal, the baby gulps down vaginal fluid filled with the type of microbes found in the mother’s body. During breast feeding, the baby consumes more microbes from the skin of the mother’s body. Not all children are born vaginally or breast fed so some children do not get this natural, first large microbial transfer from the mother’s body.

Assuming the mother is healthy, the microbes will be well suited to the environment. If the mother has abnormal gut flora, she will pass the abnormal gut flora on to her child. This is part of the “environmental inheritance” children get from their parents. Over the first few days of life, the microbes colonize the baby’s body. This first microbial colonization is extremely important for the long term health of the child. The microbes will attach themselves to the wall of the gut and somehow communicate chemically with a vast array of neurons known as the gut brain. It is thought that our immune system is somehow interconnected with this microbial world through the gut brain. If our microbes are not doing well, we will soon be sick too.

There are three main types of gut flora:

  1. Beneficial flora, sometimes called the “good bacteria”, are found in very large numbers in healthy people. These microbes help us digest our food and produce numerous vitamins for our use. The microbes will also “sacrifice themselves” by engulfing an infectious or poisonous substance and then be excreted by the body. The main types are: Bifidobacteria, Lactobacteria, Proppioncbacteria, Peptostreptococci, Enteroccci and Escherichia.
  2. Opportunistic flora, sometimes called the “bad bacteria”, vary a lot between individuals. In a healthy person, these microbes are under the strict control of the “good bacteria” but can overgrow and cause disease in the sick person. It appears we need the “bad bacteria” too.
  3. Transitory flora come from the water and food we eat each day. These are normally gram-negative bacteria. In a healthy gut, these microbes do not harm and actually helps nourish the person, and pass out of the body in a few days.

The best way to help our gut flora is to eat nourishing traditional foods, especially fermented foods, and avoid the processed foods coming out of the Industrial Food System. For more information please read 25 Step to Eating Nourishing Traditional Food and I Got Culture!

For most people this will be enough to tip the balance toward health. More sensitive people may find health by using the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. There is a small group of people that have a profound imbalance in their gut flora usually due to long-term drug treatment, stress or environmental issues. These people may find relief with supplementing probiotics. If you would like to learn more about probiotics please read Probiotics and Intestinal Microflora by Harry Bronozian.