THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO YOUR GUT
Reader's Digest UK|December 2021
The bacteria in your intestines affects whether you’ll have allergies,your risk of depression— and even how well your medication works
Vanessa Milne

DECADE AGO, Kaitlyn, a 28-year-old support worker living in Ontario, Canada, became very ill. She had painful constipation, 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 (IBS), a chronic disorder that causes cramping, pain, and bloating along with constipation or diarrhoea.

While IBS can’t be cured, it can be 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 that 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. She still needed to avoid specific foods that trigger her condition, but gained back some of the weight she had lost.

The state of our gut microbiome impacts many facets of our physical and mental health. But what is it, exactly? Imagine a jar of fermented food, like sauerkraut, which is full of bacteria. The bacteria that already live on the cabbage flourish when it’s covered in brine and sealed. In that oxygen-deprived space, those bacteria break down the food’s components—eg, 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. You pick up more bacterial strains from breast milk, your home, 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 can help you digest food, but they also impact other aspects of your body, including your immune system, brain, and your cardiovascular health.

“Your gut is like its own ecosystem,” says Sean Gibbons, a microbiome researcher and assistant professor at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington. “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 types of bacteria.

Two of the most important are Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, which feast on dietary fibre and break down complex carbohydrates. Both 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 should feed those two types well, because if there’s not enough food in your system, they’ll turn to a secondary source of nutrients. “They will actually start to eat your gut mucus,” explains Gibbons. If that happens, many bacteria in your gut will suddenly be seen by your immune system as outside agents, setting off a response that can lead to inflammatory bowel disease and other gut problems.

SIGNS YOUR GUT IS OUT OF BALANCE

You have a stubborn bowel condition

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