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Balance Your Bacteria

September 22, 2014 2:55 am
Published by: Dr. Ann Lovick

I don’t want to creep you out, but we are covered in trillions of bacteria.

In fact, there are ten times more bacterial cells on and in our bodies than there are the cells that make us human.

Now if this is making your skin crawl, it’s only because we only hear about the “bad” ones such as E. Coli, which can cause food borne illnesses.

But there are 500-1000 species of “good” bacteria on our bodies and 100-200 of these live in our large intestine, or colon, where they help to finish our food digestion. Called gut flora — after the Roman goddess of plants, flowers and fertility – these bacteria are critical to our immune system and resilience.

We may speak of bacteria as “bugs” but the reality is that bacteria work with our bodies and keep us healthy. Every yogurt company in the world is trying to make them cool.

More often however, I see symptoms of bacterial overgrowth, which are not cool – very uncomfortable, actually. So, how can we tell when this is a problem?

Garden party?

First: a word on flora. As its name suggests, think: garden.

If we feed flowers with the proper amounts of water, sunlight and fertile soil, they grow green and tall and strong. They bloom beautifully, attract bees and naturally ward off predators and disease. If any one of these things gets out of whack, the plant weakens. For example, we all know too little water and too much sun wilts plants.

A similar balance happens in the colon and keeps us strong. (Well, except for attracting bees). And, just like plants, imbalances throw off our health.

For instance, if we ate nothing but sugar, the bacteria species that love sugar will be well fed, reproduce like mad and become more numerous than any others in our gut. Meanwhile, other bacteria will be crowded out or undernourished and die off.

In the worst cases, a particularly wild bacteria party in the large intestine spills back into the small intestine. There are very few bacteria in our small bowel and lots of undigested food to eat. This causes fermentation, which produces gas and other uncomfortable chemical by-products, a condition commonly called SIBO.

Do you have an overgrowth?

The two bacterial overgrowth symptoms I see most often are bloating and probiotic-related pain:

Persistent bloating. Gas in the gut causes bloating. Bloating is a sign of poor digestion of carbohydrates. We need a healthy balance of bacteria to digest our food. And when bloating is persistent — between meals and all day, every day — it’s a sign of bacterial overgrowth. A bacterial strain has become dominant and is staying dominant in the large intestine and refusing to let the others aid digestion — or that population has gotten so big that it’s backed up into the small intestine where it doesn’t belong, causing problems.
Probiotics make things worse. Many of my patients take a daily probiotic. Usually, this is good; it helps keep our gut flora in balance, which is healthy. However, if taking the probiotic makes bloating, diarrhea or other intestinal distress worse, it is often a sign of overgrowth. We’re feeding the wrong bacteria and they are growing.

SIBO has other symptoms such as diarrhea and constipation, but those can go along with a whole host of other digestive issues. Ultimately, we can know for sure with a simple breath test.

Once diagnosed, it can take a little while to treat SIBO. Treatment options include antibiotic treatment and dietary restrictions. The SCD diet focuses on limiting certain types of foods in order to starve the offending bacteria and to promote the growth of other bacteria to regain balance and health.

Staying bacteria-balanced

To avoid imbalances, we must ensure that we’re the organism in charge of our gut health. The two best ways are:

Diet. In general, eating a consistent, nutrient dense, plant-based diet should keep you sufficiently healthy day-to-day to avoid bacterial overgrowth. And all that yogurt? Not so good….
Keep stress in check. Ever “trust your gut” or “have a gut feeling?” There’s a reason: there is a significant mind-body connection to our guts – and the bacteria – in them as well. Our immune function is very sensitive to changes in our environment; our thoughts and mood have a significant effect on our gut health. So take a moment several times a day to check in with your stress level. Take some deep breaths and smile. When you have more time, get in some moderate exercise, which also creates positive effects on gut health.