Getting to the gut of the problem

I’m really trying not to talk about food anymore.

Food, Diet, NOT FOOD, Everyday

Bacteria (and archaea) are your friends. Feed them well.

But I keep being drawn back to it, somehow.

Here are the reasons, I suspect:

1) Exercising more is very simple, and you can find all the advice you can possibly need elsewhere on my blog. So without going into highly specialized training regimen, which I don’t advocate anyway, there are only so many things that can be said about moving everyday. It is simple, but it requires effort. Everyday.

2) Food is fascinating, pleasant, and something we do effortlessly multiple times per day. So fixating on it comes easily. Also, the entire process from the food we eat to the energy we have to spend is so complex that, depending on your intentions, you can fool a lot of people some of the time, or try to enlighten one person at a time, with the same amount of energy.

So, because I’d rather enlighten a single person (I’m that kind of person), and I’ve talked about how to move more aplenty, and because more people want to read about food, let’s talk about food.

Actually, let’s talk about food that feeds the many, on top of feeding the one person who eats it. In so doing, we will get to what some have come to consider the “gut of the problem.”

Let’s talk about the food that feeds the bacteria and archaea that live in our guts.

A summary of recent research published in Scientific American spells it out quite nicely. You should really read it.

To save you time, however, here are the main facts, and what they hint at for optimal health:

  • Fact 1: Our digestive system is home to millions of other living beings. It is an ecosystem for them, and there is an interaction between their living, and our absorption of nutrients from food. It is what we refer to as the “gut microbiome” or “gut microbiota.” Or just “microbes” if you prefer.
  • Fact 2: Who says “ecosystem” also says “food chain,” “competition,” “natural selection,” etc. For instance, there’s a constant battle between “good” and “bad” bacteria; between those that help us (by helping our digestion not causing diseases) and those that can hinder us (by causing inflammation, diseases, etc.).
  • Fact 3: The gut microbiome didn’t just appear out of the blue this week; it has evolved along with us (co-evolved is the term). Different species have different gut microbiota. In each case, the gut microbiota has evolved and adapted to thrive off of what the host species typically eat.

Hint 1: Just like our own body should be fed the kind of food it is capable of handling (i.e. food, not too much, mostly plants), so too the bacteria and archaea that live inside us. Basically, the “good” ones strive on a diet that is precisely the kind of diet we should eat. And when the “good” ones don’t strive, then the “bad” ones do, and that can lead to problems for us.

Hint 2: One aspect of the research focused on fiber. We’ve known that fiber is important, and that we don’t have enough in our modern diet, but it seems a big part of the reason is that, without fiber, those “good” bacteria and archaea don’t fare so well.

Hint 3: Moreover, in the absence of enough fiber in our diet, a part of the gut microbes to the next best thing for them: the mucus that lines the walls of our digestive tract, particularly in the large intestine. But we need that mucus for the digestive system to work correctly and for the protection of the rest of our bodies, so when bacteria and archaea eat it, we get ulcers, inflammation, and a slew of other problems.

The article talks about positive results from adding fiber, even just a little, to the diet. It seems to help.

So, go ahead, add fiber to your diet. But not just any fiber.

Real food contains fiber. NOT FOOD that claims to contain fiber often contains the wrong kind of fiber. What I might call NOT FIBER, were it not for the fact that it is, in fact, fiber. Just not the kind that our gut microbiota can be expected to eat.

So we are back to the food we eat. What are we to do?

The same that we’ve known all along: Lots of veggies and fruit. And stay away from NOT FOOD.

No surprise there. Have we learned anything new today?

Yes, I think we have. Or at least this story serves as a reminder.

Nutrition is more complex than “calories in,” and just a count of carbs, proteins, and lipids. What you eat does not end up directly in your blood stream and then inside your cells. It goes through many steps of processing, natural processing, by our guts and the multitude that live in it.

Our own enzymes and guts mechanically and chemically disassemble the food we eat into its basic constituents (glucids, lipids, amino acids, various micro-nutrients) which can then enter the blood stream. What’s left behind is then further processed by gut microbes, and that can sometimes provide more nutrients for us as well.

By further (and co-processing) food, the gut microbiota play an essential role. They help make the whole machinery run smoothly. Provided they get benefits from it as well. Those benefits come from having a relatively safe place to call home and lots of food.

If we create the wrong kind of home for them, or if we provide food that the rowdy relatives prefer, then the “home” becomes less peaceful, and everybody suffers.

Sure, I’m simplifying by using such an analogy, but it is closer to the truth than a lot of the advice out there. (And much better than a car analogy.) Basically, feed your gut bacteria well, by feeding yourself real food (not too much, and mostly from plants), and you’ll improve your digestion.

So next time someone tries to sell you a super food, supplement, or miracle cure for what they claim ails you (but probably doesn’t), simply grab a veggie or a fruit, and chew on that. Everybody involved will feel better…

*****

See the article “Fiber-Famished Gut Microbes Linked to Poor Health” in Scientific American, March 23, 2015, by Katherine Harmon Courage.

Image from Pixabay.

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