What happens when your bad bacteria outnumber your good bacteria?
Dysbiosis is the technical name for a microbial imbalance on or inside the body; in other words, an imbalance of good versus bad bacteria. This condition most commonly affects the digestive tract (and, more particularly, the stomach and intestines), but can also occur on any exposed surface or mucous membrane, such as on the skin or in the vagina, lungs, nose, ears, nails or eyes.
Poor digestion and/or a toxic gut creates the perfect environment for intestinal dysbiosis – the overgrowth of harmful flora in the gut. What’s more, toxic bowels and inefficient digestion can be worsened by:
- the absence of friendly bacteria
- and the presence of harmful bacteria and parasites, which are therefore allowed to flourish. In this way, a vicious cycle is created: an unhappy digestive system -declining levels of good bacteria -increasing levels of bad bacteria – an even unhappier gut.
Not only does dysbiosis make the body vulnerable to the overgrowth of yeast (such as Candida albicans), fungi, parasites and bad bacteria, these kinds of pathogens also produce and release harmful toxins into the body, which can cause disease and compromise the liver and the immune system. For example, bacterial enzymes can render human digestive enzymes inactive and convert human bile or components of food into chemicals, which promote the development of diseases. Some by-products of bacterial enzyme activity, like ammonia, can even hinder normal brain activity. Digestive health and efficiency, together with healthy levels of friendly bacteria in the gut, are therefore the cornerstone of good health. And, with the increased prevalence of so-called “superbugs” and antibiotic resistance, as well as a growing awareness of the role of intestinal bacteria in malnutrition and diarrhoea, this has never been truer than it is today.
Common causes of dysbiosis
As already mentioned above, the primary cause of intestinal dysbiosis is the overgrowth of harmful micro-organisms, but this can be caused by any number of factors. For example:
- poorly digested food (with resulting fermentation and putrefaction in the gut)
- high levels of stress
- a high-sugar and/or generally poor diet
- high levels of acidity in the body
- medication (particularly antibiotics)
- chemical exposure
- a high toxic load.
All of these factors can disrupt the delicate balance of flora within the gut by, for example, altering the intestinal pH and destroying friendly bacteria.
Dysbiosis and other health conditions
Nutritional medicine places significant emphasis on the health of the digestive tract (which logically includes its levels of friendly bacteria). This is because it is the system through which we obtain life-giving, protective nutrients, as well as the means by which we eliminate waste and toxins which would be harmful to us if allowed to remain in the body. Elements of the digestive system also form a vital part of the immune system. As such, an inefficient, inflamed or toxic gut can have serious consequences for our health. For example, dysbiosis has been associated with inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), chronic fatigue syndrome, yeast infections and rheumatoid arthritis. Similarly, if you have poor digestion, your delicate intestinal lining can become irritated and more permeable and what is known as “leaky gut syndrome” can develop. In this case, partially digested food particles can seep through the intestinal walls into the bloodstream, straining the immune system and possibly even contributing to the development of food intolerances and allergies.
Common signs of a gut flora imbalance
If you suffer with dysbiosis, you will likely experience any or all of the following:
- regular stomach upsets
- recurring yeast infections
- poor immunity
- stomach cramping
- excessive wind
- indigestion / reflux – constipation
A diet and lifestyle to beat the bad bugs
Given the range of possible internal and external factors linked to the development of dysbiosis (as described above), both long-term diet and lifestyle are important in effectively addressing it. For example, this might involve…
1. Taking proactive steps to improve your digestion and increase your levels of friendly bacteria: For instance, increasing your intake of high-quality dietary fibre, digestive enzymes, probiotics and prebiotics, as well as staying hydrated. Quality fibre can be obtained from natural, unprocessed whole grains. Digestive enzymes are present in high levels in raw fruit, vegetables and leafy green plants (which also tend to be high in fibre). Friendly bacteria can be accessed through so-called probiotic foods, like tofu, sauerkraut, kefir and others. Food for friendly bacteria (prebiotics) which can support their growth, can be accessed from foods such as garlic, chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke and more. Of course, all of these nutrients can also be taken in supplement form, for additional support.
2. Improving your diet: Don’t feed what you are trying to kill – bad bugs in the gut love sugar. Similarly, don’t add to the woes of your digestive system by eating foods that are only going to further inflame and strain it. For example, dairy, meat and sugar are all highly acid-forming and inflammatory. Stay away from highly refined, processed foods as much as possible. Instead, opt for natural whole foods, which tend to be alkalising and contain many of the cleansing and protective nutrients required to support a happy, healthy gut.
3. Reducing your toxic load: Every day, you make choices (important choices) about what you put into your mouth, but also about what you expose your body to. For example, in terms of pollutants and toxins in your environment. Think carefully about what you are absorbing through your skin, what you are breathing in, what chemicals might be in your food or water. By reducing your toxic load, you will not only support your immune system and liver, you will also help to minimise the risk of a toxic gut. This, together with the steps mentioned above, will give you the best possible chance of avoiding dysbiosis in the first place or, if that is not possible, of at least starting to address the imbalance.