We are all familiar with the idea that there are bacteria and other critters in our bowels that help our system do the work of digestion. But investigators looking at the “intestinal flora” are finding it goes way beyond that. Their presence is now thought to affect not only digestion, but also obesity, diabetes, neurological disorders including autism, the immune system and even cancer.
About 500 different species inhabit our bowels, with an estimated 100 trillion cells total. Our intestinal flora varies a lot from person to person, and can change over time in the same person. They are affected by diet and drug consumption. Antibiotics, not surprisingly, have a profound effect, and not a favorable one. There are also cultural differences. Humans who live a more native lifestyle, living and eating as their ancestors have for centuries (not many are left in the world), tend to have not only different species than the rest of us, but also more diversity. The same tends to be true of people who may live in a developed country but eat a lot of plant-based, less processed foods. It is thought that a higher diversity of species is a good thing; studies generally show that people with health problems have less diversity, including diseases like autism, obesity and bowel cancer.
One of the biggest differences between our diets and those of our ancestors is the amount of processing our food goes through. Everything we eat is usually cooked, pasteurized, refined, homogenized, “enriched,” and made to be low fat. We also eat a lot of stuff that isn’t even food, like soda, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils and hydrogenated fats. This diet is low in the foods that feed our healthy flora, which thrive on indigestible fibers from whole, minimally processed, plant-based foods. If we don’t feed the bacteria that support our bodies, they will be replaced by others that can leave us inflamed, overweight and prone to diseases.
Another difference with our modern diets is the pesticides and herbicides used to raise our foods. Roundup, the most popular herbicide, with an estimated annual worldwide use of 650,000 tons per year, has been associated with affecting the helpful bacteria in our systems, allowing the problematic ones to take over. The same effect has been noticed in cows.
The species that live in our intestines can have a strong effect on our immune systems. One of the key functions of our immune system is to differentiate our cells from invaders, so the body does not attack our own tissues. This process is supported by the presence of healthy bacteria in our guts, and may be disrupted if those species are displaced by a modern diet or heavy antibiotic use. This may help explain the rise in immune-related disorders, from life-threatening food allergies to chronic sinusitis to autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Of course, cause and effect is always a question in issues like this. Does the altered intestinal flora cause disease, or does it just mirror what is happening in the body? Research into this question has generally supported that improving the makeup of the flora has a direct impact on your health. Naturally, there are dietary changes that support healthy flora. This will be the topic for next week, but here is a hint: The Orono Farmers’ Market resumes its weekly schedule Saturday, April 26 at 9 a.m.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.