Your gut flora are the friendly bacteria that live in your intestinal tract: the average person has 10 times as many bacteria in their gut as they do cells in their own body, and these little guys are huge for your health.
Most people know that gut flora can affect their digestion – whether it’s constipation, diarrhea, bloating, or some combination of the above. But the effects of the gut microbiome aren’t limited to the gut itself! If you have chronic health problems, chances are there’s something going wrong with your gut flora - and if you want to avoid them, paying attention to those friendly bacteria is a smart move. Here are 8 reasons why paying attention to your gut pays off for your overall health.
1. Gut Flora Affect Insulin Sensitivity
The hormone insulin controls all kinds of processes, from carbohydrate digestion to muscle growth to other important hormones like leptin (which regulates hunger). It’s one of the most important hormones for weight loss and metabolic healing. Insulin sensitivity basically means that your body is producing and using insulin correctly. (You can learn more here, if you’re confused)
The opposite of insulin sensitivity is insulin resistance: when your body isn’t interpreting insulin signals properly. This is a hallmark of obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome – and while it has many causes, gut flora dysfunction is certainly among them?
People with Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome have altered patterns of gut flora, and modifying their gut flora improves their insulin signaling: in this study, gut flora transplant from lean, insulin-sensitive donors improved insulin sensitivity in obese, insulin-resistant men. If you want healthy insulin action (and unless diabetes is on your bucket list, you do), then you want healthy gut flora.
2. Gut Health is the Key to Autoimmunity
Autoimmune diseases are very complicated and obviously depend on all kinds of other factors – genetics is one obvious player. But one key factor in developing autoimmune diseases is intestinal permeability, aka “leaky gut” – that’s when things (like undigested proteins) get through the gut lining into your body when they shouldn’t actually be there.
The gut flora strongly affect the permeability of the intestinal lining, which is probably why they’re so important in the development of autoimmune diseases. They’re like the gatekeepers that can either let the offending proteins in or keep them out. Just to take one example, children with Type 1 Diabetes (which is an autoimmune disease) have altered patterns of gut flora, and specifically lower levels of the bacteria needed to maintain intestinal permeability. Some research suggests that this may be a trigger of the disease itself.
Another example is rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease, unlike the more familiar osteoarthritis, which is what most people with “arthritis” have). Rheumatoid arthritis is all about gut flora dysfunction; it can even be a symptom of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
Gut flora control that careful balance between attacking outside invaders (immunity) without attacking your own body as well (autoimmunity) – gut health is one of the biggest ways to improve your immune health.
3. Gut Flora Coordinate your Allergic Response
Another consequence of the role the gut flora play in the immune system is their potential to regulate allergies and allergic responses. Allergies are basically an immune response gone haywire: instead of attacking pathogens, it’s attacking totally harmless things like pollen. Gut flora are an important part of your immune system, and one of their major roles is helping to distinguish friend from foe – what to attack and what to leave alone. That makes them huge in determining whether or not you’ll end up with allergies, or allergic diseases like eczema.
This is especially important for young children, and there may be a relatively short “window” of time for babies to develop the proper balance of gut flora for immune regulation. In several studies, babies with lower microbial diversity have higher rates of eczema, asthma, and other allergic and inflammatory diseases. Adding prebiotics to infant formula may help avoid these diseases, another piece of evidence for the importance of the gut in allergic reactions. If you don’t like sniffling your way through ragweed season, you’d do well to look to the gut.
4. Your Gut Determines your Appetite and Tastes
It’s as common saying that when you go Paleo, “your taste buds change,” and without the constant influx of intensely sweet junk food, you stop wanting it. It’s very true that your tastes and appetite adjust depending on your diet – and one important driver of that is the gut microbiome.
Your gut flora can sense what you eat, and they can get conditioned to prefer the kinds of foods you eat regularly. So if you eat a lot of sugar, your gut will continue “wanting” a lot of sugar. On the other hand, if you stop eating sugar, your gut will stop “wanting” it. Gut flora also have an effect on your overall appetite: in this study, encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria with a prebiotic supplement helped reduce hunger relative to a placebo, probably by affecting gut hormones. In other words: take care of your gut, and your appetite will take care of itself. Isn’t that more pleasant than starving it out on “willpower”?
5. Gut Flora Modify Mood and Mental Health
“Gut feeling” is more than just a saying! The gut-brain axis is one of the most interesting ways that your gut can affect your health. Gut flora affect everything from production of neurotransmitters to the hormonal stress response (and stress in turn comes right back around to cause more gut dysfunction).
Gut flora problems often go along with mood disorders – the most obvious case is Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS patients have significant gut flora dysfunction, and also significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders than healthy controls. On the flip side, most people’s mood improves with better gut health. In this study, subjects who got a probiotic felt significantly less “psychological distress” than subjects taking a placebo. If you like energy, mental clarity, and overall good brain vibes, make sure to treat your gut flora right.
6. Gut Flora Affect Skin Health
If you’re prone to oily skin, breakouts, or other dermatological woes, you might be familiar with the skin microbiome: that’s the collection of friendly (and occasionally not-so-friendly) bacteria that live on the surface of your skin. But you might also consider going a little deeper than the surface: skin problems often indicate gut problems underneath.
The gut-brain-skin axis links your intestinal microbiome, mental health, and skin – it’s not just about the bacteria that live on the surface of your body! If you want to fix your skin health, a good start might be in your gut.
7. Gut Health Improves Liver Health
Liver health isn't a very sexy topic, but it's incredibly important for overall health, because your liver is your body's natural detoxifier. If you want an effective detox, don’t worry about dandelion tea or weird cleanses. Instead, focus on taking care of your liver…which you can do very well by taking care of your gut!
The clearest way to see this is to look at the ways gut flora dysfunction contributes to liver disease. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) affects up to ⅓ of the population, and it’s driven by many things, but one of them is the gut flora. Gut flora are important for digesting and absorbing choline (an important nutrient that the liver needs); they control the metabolism of bile acid, and they also have more general effects on inflammation and other factors that can rebound on liver health.
In other word, the gut microbiome has a huge effect on liver health and disease, and taking care of your gut is likely to be more useful than all the weird “detox teas” out there.
8. Gut Flora Control Systemic Inflammation
Inflammation – it’s the Paleo Big Bad, and you can read all about why it’s dangerous here. In a nutshell, chronic inflammation is your immune system’s response to persistent irritation: it’s like being wounded all the time, but from the inside out. And the gut flora are a crucial part of your body’s immune defenses.
Just like the rest of your immune system, if the gut flora perceive a persistent irritation (say, from a bunch of rancid deep-fried seed oil), they’ll react with an inflammatory response. Inflammation that starts in the gut has been connected to problems from obesity to chronic kidney disease to autoimmune disorders: it might start in the gut, but it certainly doesn’t stay there. Even if the inflammation doesn’t result in any other more serious problem, it still has symptoms of its own, like brain fog. This stuff is not fun, and your gut flora are crucial for preventing it.
If you Want Good Health, Take Care of your Gut Flora.
Mood, immune function, allergies, inflammation, and all the other issues listed above aren’t obviously connected with the gut – they don’t necessarily come along with stomach aches or gastrointestinal issues. But all of them are gut-related when you dive into them, and together they make 8 very good reasons to keep your gut flora happy for overall health, even if you're not worried about any specific gastrointestinal symptoms.