How to heal your gut
A decade ago, Kaitlyn, a 28-year-old support worker, had become very ill. She had painful constipation and was contracting fevers and losing weight. “If I ate too much, I would vomit,” she says.
After tests ruled out Crohn’s disease and colitis, Kaitlyn’s family doctor diagnosed her with irritable bowel syndrome, a chronic disorder that causes cramping, pain and bloating along with constipation or diarrhoea.
IBS isn’t something that can be cured but, rather, managed through lifestyle changes. A dietitian suggested to Kaitlyn that the bacteria that lived in her intestines – collectively known as the gut microbiome – might be out of balance, contributing to her condition. She recommended Kaitlyn take probiotics – pills that contain specific strains of bacteria – to help put things in order.
After only a few days of taking the probiotics, Kaitlyn felt a lot better. “The pain and fevers went away, and I was able to eat without getting sick,” she says. Although she still needed to avoid specific foods that trigger her condition, she gained back some of the weight she had lost.
But probiotics don’t work for everyone, and we don’t really know why. Although the state of our gut microbiome impacts many facets of our physical and mental health, scientists have had the technology to study it for only the last 15 years. That said, discoveries are being made every year. Here’s what we know about the gut, how to tell if it’s out of balance, and how to make it as healthy as possible.
How does a gut microbiome form?
Imagine a jar of fermented food, like sauerkraut, which is full of bacteria. In the case of the cabbage that transforms into this dish, the bacteria that already live on the cabbage flourish when you cover it in brine and put it into a sealed container. Inside that oxygen-deprived space, those bacteria break down the components of the food – like carbohydrates – and release acid, which gives sauerkraut its tangy flavour. A similar process happens inside your intestines every time you eat: bacteria break the food down, transforming it into crucial vitamins, amino acids, chemicals and, yes, gas.
All those bacteria start colonising you the minute you’re born. Babies who are born vaginally have different microbiomes than those who are born by C-section, because the former are exposed to more of their mother’s bacteria. After that, you pick up more bacterial strains from breast milk, your house, the environment outside, contact with other people, the food you eat and even the family dog.
By the age of three, your microbiome has pretty much settled into how it will look when you’re an adult. The different types of bacteria that live in your gut help you digest food, but they also impact other aspects of your body as well, including your immune system, your brain and your cardiovascular health.
What bacteria are in your gut?
“Your gut is like its own ecosystem,” says Sean Gibbons, a microbiome researcher. “It’s warm, humid and wet – like a rainforest.” And, he explains, like any thriving ecosystem, your gut is healthy when it’s diverse, with hundreds of different types of bacteria flourishing.
Two of the most important types of bacteria in a gut system are Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, which feast on dietary fibre and break down complex carbohydrates. Both of them also churn out short-chain fatty acids, microscopic compounds that help maintain the integrity of the gut wall. (That barrier is supposed to be porous in order to let nutrients through, but if it’s too porous, that can lead to inflammation.) They also have anti-inflammatory properties and can promote brain health.
You want to feed those two types well, because if there’s not enough food in your system, they’ll turn to their secondary source: you. “They will actually start to eat your gut mucus,” explains Gibbons. If that happens, many bacteria in your gut that wouldn’t bother you with an undisturbed gut surface will suddenly be seen as outside agents from your immune system, setting off a response that can lead to inflammatory bowel disease and other gut problems. Read on to find out the signs your gut is out of balance.