Has your gut bacteria taken a hit? When life takes its toll on your microbiome it’s time to fight back
“Cold? No, I haven’t had one for years!” Ever found yourself uttering that slightly smug phrase? If you wear your good health as a badge of honour (and who doesn’t?) you’ll be rightly proud that your robust immune system has seen you though another silly season of common colds, flu, throat infections, sinusitis and all the other wonders of winter. And yet the communities of gut bacteria that contribute to your immunity are more fragile than you might realise.
“Quite a high density of the immune system is in the gut,” points out immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi. “After all, it’s a portal to the outside world where the possibility of infection – of eating or swallowing something that can make you sick – is quite high.” In fact, right from your earliest moments your gut has been harbouring diverse microbes which actually help the immature immune systems we’re all born with to develop and flourish. “So anything that’s problematic for the microbiome – your population of gut microbes – is going to have a knock-on affect on the immune system,” says Dr Jenna.
Antibiotics is the most obvious enemy there – this common medication is deployed to fight bacterial infections, decimating populations of friendly bacteria in the process – but it’s not the only one. “Traveller’s diarrhoea, or a gastrointestinal bug that makes you unwell for several days, will mean you need to repopulate that good bacteria,” says Dr Jenna. “Also diet; you can really change your microbiome over a week or so just by changing what you eat.” Worth remembering if you’re considering a restrictive diet.
What’s more, big environmental changes can hit your gut, as your body encounters new soil-borne microbes. Even an overactive lifestyle can have a negative effect: “Burning the candle at both ends and hitting the gym too many times actually makes the gut wall quite permeable,” says Dr Jenner. Interestingly, these physical triggers to a big ‘bacteria depletion event’ may even be joined by psychological causes.
“Research in animal models clearly show a relationship between trauma and disruption in the healthy workings of the gut,” says Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist on behalf of Healthspan (healthspan.co.uk) and co-author of IBS: Navigating Your Way To Recovery. “In humans, a study of 816 men and women with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) found that those who had experienced the horrors of war at a very early age were indeed more likely to have IBS later in life. There has also been research looking at the association between GI issues and abuse, which have found links between such trauma and gut symptoms. However, we must be careful in the interpretation of these studies as they are correlational in nature.”
So, if so many unavoidable life events can decimate the populations of helpful microbes that colonise our gut, what can be done to bring these important communities back to full health? “We know there’s some positive effect from taking probiotics so I definitely recommend them as something you should try,” says Dr Jenna. “A supplement is probably going to be most effective due to the sheer numbers of bacteria contained, but there’s no harm in topping that up with naturally probiotic foods – kefir, live yoghurt, live ferments.
“Prebiotics can help to support our gut health by providing food for the beneficial microbes that live inside us, which have been shown to play an important role in our health,” says nutritionist Amelia Freer. “Oligosaccharides, a type of fibre, can act as a prebiotic and can be found in a number of foods including goat’s milk. The levels of these prebiotics is actually higher in goat’s milk than it is in cow’s milk.”
“Prebiotics are plant-based fibres the live bacteria you’re introducing will eat,” says Dr Jenna. “I don’t really favour prebiotic supplements because they generally only have one type of fibre in. Each bacterial strain in your gut is going to have something different that it likes, so a high fibre diet – introduced gently if your gut is sensitive after a illness – is helpful. We’re not talking about All Bran here, but a rich variety of beans, pulses, fruit, veg… a real diversity of fibres. Some of the probiotics have a prebiotic inside, which is fine, but I’d say go for a food first approach.”
Listening to your body and working persistently to improve the chances for your microbiome are key. “Your microbiome, like your finger prints, is going to be completely unique to you,” points out Dr Jenna. “We know from experiments in animals that in some cases the gut communities don’t return to normal even two years after antibiotics have been given. Lab studies show that even mice raised in the same environment and fed the same diet – so you’d expect them to have a similar microbiome – all recovered differently. Some recover quickly, some don’t. If you take probiotics whilst you’re on antibiotics it’s possible they won’t be able to take effect because they’ll be disrupted by the medication. Overlapping them as you finish your course could work, though.”
Intriguingly enough, opportunities to repopulate a depleted microbiome may not begin and end with oral treatments. “Researchers are starting to investigate whether psychological treatments directly affect the microbiome,” says Dr Meg Arroll. “One case study integrated cognitive psychotherapy, dietary changes, and mindfulness activities to treat an individual with anxiety and panic attacks. Stool samples pre- and post-treatment showed that gut diversity improved over the three weeks of treatment, illustrating a rapid reshaping of the gut microbiome.
“We have yet to test microbial diversity before and after singular psychological treatments on a larger, more robust scale. But, knowing how the brain and gut communicate, it’s conceivable that such therapeutic interventions may influence gut microbial diversity.” In fact, some living with IBS – quite possibly triggered or aggravated by a hit to their microbiome – are already benefiting from psychological interventions. “Gut-directed hypnotherapy is one of the most effective treatments of IBS,” points out Dr Meg. “This tailored form of hypnotherapy eases symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, urgency and pain through techniques such as guided imagery, relaxation and psychoeducation. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has also been found to help reduce symptoms in people with IBS. Interestingly, in these studies, comparisons were made between CBT and patient support groups and, even in the latter, patients’ symptoms improved. This illustrates the importance of any type of talking intervention for the management of functional gut disorders.”
Restoring your microbial communities is an important goal, but a tricky one. After all, unless you happen to have had stools tested before antibiotics, a tummy bug, diet or trauma wipe them out, you’ll never know exactly what you’ve lost. Not to worry, says Dr Jenna. “Even if you’re microbiome never recovers, the lasting changes might be small enough that you don’t really notice any difference. Especially if you’ve not taken antibiotics very often.” Moral of the story? Look after those hoards of microbes that call your gut home, because they’re busy looking after you.
Recover your gut using digestionfriendly essential oils, says consultant aromatherapist Nicole Barton of Base Formula (baseformula.com)
Diffuse – Add two to three drops each of sweet orange, clove and juniper berry to a daily diffusion blend – this is really great for aiding the immune system after you’ve had a digestive issue.
Massage – Cardamon and mandarin are great for settling the stomach. Add three drops of each into 15ml of grapeseed oil and massage into the tummy with a gentle clockwise motion.
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