How to Develop a New Gut for the New Year

healthy gut

Story at-a-glance -

  • Committing to improving your gut microbiome will do more than develop good bowel habits; you’ll likely experience easier weight loss, better health, improved mood and reduced risk of some cancers
  • Microbial diversity in your gut may be affected by illness and disease, as demonstrated by research using individuals suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome
  • One of the simplest, easiest and most cost-effective ways of improving your gut diversity is to eat fermented foods made with a starter culture and optimizing your vitamin D levels

By Dr. Mercola

Are you still trying to achieve the goals you set for yourself in 2016? You wouldn't be the only one. According to Forbes magazine, only 8 percent of people who set New Year's Resolutions will accomplish them.1

There are secrets to achieving your goals that are shared by those elite 8 percent. They aren't difficult or unusual, but they do require you actually take action.

Making your goals specific, measuring your progress, being patient and scheduling the time to work on your goals are just some of the ways people who successfully achieve their goals make it happen.2

Achieving your goal and enjoying success also depends on making the right goals that improve your life and your health.

Committing to making changes to your gut microbiome will do far more than improve your bowel habits. Your gut health is important to most aspects of your life, including reducing your risk for cancer, metabolic syndrome, depression and type 2 diabetes.

The No. 1 New Year's resolution for 2015 in the U.S. was losing weight.3 Goals planned in Great Britain were led by losing weight, followed closely by getting fit and eating healthier.4 These goals tend to be popular in any given year, and each of these goals is impacted by improving your gut health.

Get a Gut Makeover

Hippocrates once said that "all disease begins in the gut," and the more we learn, the more accurate that statement becomes. With research and study, scientists now understand your gut plays a crucial role in many health and disease processes, and actually acts as your body's second brain.

Getting a makeover of your gut microbiome may help you achieve your goals of weight loss, fitness, health and wellness and more.

Your immune system responds to the invasion of foreign invaders, cell injury and toxins by becoming inflamed. The purpose of this is to start repair in your body and help fight the foreign substances.

You experience short term inflammation when you get a bug bite or sprain your ankle. But chronic, low-grade and systemic inflammation triggers a different response.5

Systemic inflammation is now believed to be one of the leading triggers for serious diseases, including neurological degeneration,6 type 2 diabetes7 and cardiovascular disease,8 to name just a few.

Modifying your gut microbiome is an excellent long-term investment in your health and wellness. The number of bacteria in your body is now believed to be 1.3 bacteria to each body cell, with approximately 39 of the 40 trillion bacteria in your body living in your gut.9 

The consequences of a poorly developed microbiome may also affect your mood, emotions, allergies and anxiety.10

The diversity of your gut microbiome begins to be established when you are an infant, and is affected by genetics, whether you are breast or bottle fed, and your immediate environment.

Later in life your microbiome is significantly affected by your food choices. Diets high in sugar and processed foods may reduce the diversity and your overall health.

A study in both mice and humans found that changing your eating habits can alter the diversity of your gut microbiome and affect your bodily responses to dieting and nutritional interventions.11

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Shifting Your Diet Induces Persistent Changes in Your Gut

In this interview with Greg Leyer, Ph.D., we discuss the importance of probiotics to your gut health. Long-term dietary practices play an important role in the colonization and maintenance of a diverse microbiota.

This study on eating habits looked at the fecal microbiota of Americans eating an unrestricted diet compared to Americans eating a plant-rich diet with restricted caloric intake.12

One of the questions the researchers set out to discover was how people eating different diets would respond when their eating habits improved. The researchers used fecal samples to harvest gut bacteria and then transplanted those into mice bred in sterile conditions.

Separating the mice into two separate groups, researchers fed one a plant-based diet and the other an American-style type diet. The mice who had gut microbiota typical of an American diet had a weaker response than those eating a calorie-restricted, plant-based diet.

The microbiome was not as diverse and it didn't increase. They also found that when the two groups of mice were housed together, bacterial diversity in the group eating an American style diet improved.

Whether this can be translated to humans is questionable as mice tend to eat each other's droppings and so share their bacterial diversity. However, humans do have other ways of sharing bacterial colonies. Nicholas Griffin, Ph.D., lead author from Washington University, commented:13

"We know from previous work and other studies that spouses who live together will develop microbial communities that are similar to each other."

One of the best ways of cultivating a healthy microbiome is to eat a diet rich in fiber. I believe that 50 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you eat per day is an ideal amount to support your bacterial growth and help prevent systemic inflammation.

Your Gut Bacteria Is Unique

Fiber is not digested by your body and plays an important role in the development of your gut bacteria. Soluble fiber may help to slow down your digestion, making you feel full longer.

Insoluble fiber helps your food move through your intestinal tract more quickly for healthy elimination. Many fruits and vegetables contain both soluble and insoluble fiber.

Probiotics are foods and supplements that increase the diversity of the microbiome in your intestinal tract, while prebiotics are the workhorses that feed those microbiota, helping them to grow and multiply.

Your beneficial bacteria feast on the fiber that resists digestion found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, extracting energy, nutrients and vitamins from the fiber.14

Beneficial microbes also use the fiber to grow and multiply. If you starve your gut microbiome of fiber, some die off and others switch their source of nutrients to the mucus lining of your gut that helps keep your gut wall intact and prevent leakage of molecules from your intestines into your body.15

Microbiologist Eric Martens, Ph.D., believes this underscores the plasticity of your gut microbiome. The composition of your microbiome is dependent on several factors, including your health history and geographic location.

It is influenced by your dietary choices, exposure to toxins and antibiotics and your hygiene. As your gut is the proverbial gatekeeper for your inflammatory response, it is acknowledged as one of the factors in rising disease rates.

Although the inflammatory response may begin in your gut, it send signals to your brain, which responds with a complex feedback loop.

So, while the flora in your gut remains local, it has a significant influence on the health of your entire body. Just how unique your gut microbiome is has been demonstrated by a recent study of people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).16

Researchers have now determined that individuals with CFS have significantly lower microbial diversity compared to healthy people.17 Individuals with CFS also had higher blood values of lipopolysaccharides, an inflammatory molecule indicating bacteria from the intestines have migrated to the bloodstream. Using these criteria, the researchers were then able to identify over 83 percent of people with CFS. This suggests the makeup of your microbiome may be used as a diagnostic tool for this condition.

Vitamin D May Improve Your Gut and Improve Metabolic Syndrome

Fiber and probiotics are not the only strategy you may use to improve your gut flora. Vitamin D is yet another tactic in your arsenal for good health. The benefits of vitamin D are far reaching and impact your overall health in significant ways. The development of cancers, infections, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases and DNA repair are all affected by your vitamin D levels.

Recent research now demonstrates that vitamin D receptors in the ileum of the small intestines and vitamin D deficiency are linked to dysbiosis, or microbial imbalance or maladaptation in the gut.18

In this study researchers found metabolic syndrome in mice improved with vitamin D supplementation.19 They also found that an insufficient amount of vitamin D in the animals aggravated an imbalance in the gut microbiota. Constipation or chronic diarrhea, intestinal gas and chronic bad breath are associated with copiousness bad gut bacteria. The study confirmed vitamin D deficiency hindered the production of defensins, anti-microbial molecules your body uses to maintain the integrity of gut bacteria.20

Your Weight Loss Resolution May Meet Success With Improved Gut Microbiome

The rather large community of bacteria residing in your gut also has a substantial influence on your ability to lose weight. For many people, weight loss may result in ultimately gaining the original amount of weight back, and then some. In the diet industry this is called the "yo-yo effect," and has been replicated in mice.21

The bacteria living in your gut help to extract energy from the food you eat and are influenced by the type of foods you choose. Some changes happen to your gut quickly, while other changes to the type of bacteria happen more slowly. During the study, researchers fed mice high-fat chow for a month until they became obese.22 They then switched the food to normal chow for mice, which resulted in weight loss.

However, once the researchers returned the mice to the high-fat food, the mice gained even more weight than they had before. After dieting, the obese mice had returned to their normal baseline weight, including blood values such as cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin levels, but further examination revealed their gut microbiome had not fully reverted to their pre-obese state.

After gaining weight the gut microbiome became less diverse. Using this information, the researchers completed further experiments and were able to demonstrate this change in gut bacteria was the reason the animals experienced accelerated weight gain once they returned to a high-fat diet.

These findings are preliminary and still leave several questions unanswered, which is why the research team is now studying humans to determine if they experience the same microbial lag when dieting.

In the study's work with animals, the researchers found it took mice 21 weeks to normalize their microbial community. If that span scales to humans it could take many years after dieting to normalize your gut microbiota. In this animal model, they were not supplemented with probiotics to assist in the recovery of their gut microbiome.

That said, previous research suggests the human gut microbiome may change rather quickly. Even a few days on a dramatically different diet may shift your microbial makeup according to some studies.23 It remains to be seen whether this holds true for microbial communities associated specifically with obesity.

Easiest, Cheapest and Best Way to Improve Your Gut Microbiome

Fermented foods are the easiest, best and cheapest way you can make a significant impact on your gut microbiome. Fermentation can be accomplished using a wild method, during which the food is allowed to ferment alone. However, the results are more time consuming and the end product is less certain.

Inoculating the food with a starter culture will speed the process and ensure you'll end up with a consistent, high-quality product that not only naturally preserves the food, allowing you to store it for several weeks, but also produces:

  • Beneficial healthy bacteria that promote gut health. Fermented milk products also contain non-digestible carbohydrate galacto-oligosaccharide, which acts as a prebiotic,24 and essential amino acids25
  • Beneficial enzymes
  • Certain nutrients, including B vitamins, biotin and folic acid.26 Fermented milk products also contain higher amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)27
  • Increased bioavailability of minerals28
  • Short-chain fatty acids, which help improve your immune system function

Optimizing your gut health is a foundational step to good health, and an important step to take this New Year. Considering current disease statistics, you likely will benefit from eating fermented foods with a variety of bacteria to improve your microbial diversity. I believe it is the least expensive and most effective means of accomplishing this goal.

Your diet is one of the easiest, fastest and most effective ways to improve and optimize your microbiome, so the good news is that you have a great degree of control over your health destiny. Making your own fermented vegetables at home is easy with my kinetic starter culture and simple, tasty recipes to satisfy your palate.