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By Dr. Justin Marchegiani
Did you know that the bacteria in your gut has a huge effect on your immune system? Your gut houses 70% of your immune system. Gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) and mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) reside in the gastrointestinal tract, and these lymphoid tissues produce antibodies that fight bacteria, viruses, parasites, and infections.
If you don’t have a healthy gut balance, your immune system will be severely affected. There are three main types of bacteria that determine the health of the gut: beneficial, commensal, and pathogenic.
Beneficial bacteria include probiotics, such as Lactobacillus and soil-based probiotics. Beneficial bacteria aid in the following:
- Nutrient Breakdown
- Immune Function
You need certain nutrients and absorption of these nutrients to help run your detoxification pathways. If you don’t have beneficial bacteria, you can produce enzymes known as beta-glucoronidases that can negatively affect how bile conjugates hormones. Beta-glucoronidase and good bacteria levels are an inverse relationship. If you have high beneficial bacteria levels, you’re going to have low beta-glucoronidase.
The good bacteria in your gut also produce acids, like lactic acid or CO2, that can lower the pH. When the pH in your gut is lower, it’s harder for bacteria that are bad, or pathogenic, to proliferate. Yeast infections proliferate more in an alkaline urinary tract than in an acidic urinary tract. That’s why things like cranberry extract and resistant starches can be beneficial. Resistant starches feed butyrate (butyric acid), which helps decrease microbes.
You need healthy hydrochloric acid (HCl) levels in your stomach. Without it you can’t break down proteins, start protein metabolism, or ionize minerals. If you can’t ionize minerals, you can’t absorb minerals. Protein digestion starts in the stomach, so the first domino falls over in the stomach. If that domino doesn’t fall, then the dominoes in the gallbladder, where fat is emulsified, and pancreas, where lipase and other enzymes and fats are produced, won’t fall. So beneficial bacteria is very important for helping the first domino of digestion fall.
Commensal bacteria are switch-hitters that can become either beneficial or pathogenic. Stressors, the factors shared later in this post, can push them to one side or the other.
Symptoms of Bad Bacteria Levels
If you have any of the following symptoms, there is good chance that your bacteria levels in your gut are tipped more toward the pathogenic side. Unless changes with diet, gut bacteria, infections, and stress are changed, symptoms tend to get worse over time!
- GERD or acid reflux
- Constipation or not having a bowel movement at least once per day
- Stomach pain
- Any active gut infection
Pathogenic bacteria include bacterial infections (e.g., H.pylori), parasites (e.g., C.difficile), and infections. Pathogenic bacteria can produce the following:
- Toxins—These toxins include mycotoxins, endotoxins, or various biotoxins produced by infections. These infections disrupt peristalsis, which can cause bowel movements to take longer. This can cause the body to reabsorb a lot of toxins from the bowel, causing autointoxication.
- Malabsorption—If you’re not able to absorb certain nutrients and minerals, it’s going to have an effect on your energy systems, the Krebs cycle, and the electron transport chain. You must have nutrition to run your energy pathways.
- Leaky gut—Leaky gut drives autoimmune conditions. In a leaky gut, the tight junctions in our bowel start to open up, forming various cracks and allowing food molecules and bacterial infections to slip into the bloodstream. The immune system creates a hate response to these foreign molecules, and because a gluten molecule may look similar to the thyroid tissue or a dairy molecule may look similar to the pancreas, other tissues start to get destroyed by mistaken identity.
Factors That Push “Gut Bacteria”
There are many factors that push gut bacteria in one direction or the other. All of these tend to be opportunistic, which means we start to see a decrease in HCl, enzymes, and nutrition. You aren’t what you eat; you are what you eat, break down, absorb, and assimilate. These things push us in the direction of the pathogenic bacteria:
- Medications—Proton pump inhibitors (PPI), such as Nexium and Prilosec, shut down HCl production, but HCl production is important for the first domino of digestion. When acidity is low, HCl will trigger the esophageal sphincter to close. If it doesn’t close, it’s very easy for the acids to rise up, burning the throat and creating a reflux disorder. Acid breaks down nutrients, and if you don’t get good breakdown, it creates a downward cycle that only gets worse. A good doctor can find the root cause of the issue and pull you off a PPI responsibly. Don’t randomly take yourself off it.
- Sugar—If you’re eating too much refined and processed sugar, it feeds the bad bacteria in your gut. About one hundred years ago, each person was consuming and average of 3–4 pounds of sugar per year; now it’s about 150 pounds. Too much sugar consumption feeds the funguses and pathogenic bacteria in your gut.
- Emotional—Emotional stress will increase interleukin 6 (IL-6), which is an immune compound that can throw your immune system out of balance. Your immune system and gut are intimately connected, and you should minimize emotional stress to have a healthy gut balance.
- Decreased probiotics—Maybe you’re not eating probiotics via fermented foods, like raw milk if you can tolerate dairy. Get natural probiotics from foods you can tolerate.
- Increased antibiotics—The consumption of antibiotics wipes out everything in the gut and causes rebound overgrowths to occur. If you wipe out everything in a garden, the first thing that grows back, unless you plant seeds, is weeds. If antibiotic use is an issue, you need to consume good seeds (prebiotics and probiotics) for balance.
- Infections—Infections tend to be opportunistic, which means they happen when someone already has a compromised immunity. A tick bite causing Lyme disease can drive one person into a pathogenic episode while another can be bitten and recover quickly. Everyone is a little different, but the more stressors a person has, the more complicated the infection can be. Those who bounce back quickly may be feeding, and have a greater abundance of, the beneficial bacteria in their gut. An infection can prevent healing even when these stressors are removed, and the infection may need to be addressed for you to fully heal. Some patients can get exposed to a parasite, like Giardia, or pathogenic bacteria, like H.pylori, and not recover from the infection and get sick.
- Leaky gut—Foods and unwanted bacteria in the intestinal track can slip through the tight junctions into the bloodstream. This can put stress on the immune system and is the main cause of autoimmune disease for most people.
Most people who have a digestive problem seem to have a higher amount of bad bacteria as well as a potential active gut infection. These problems tend to be active for many years before symptoms start to even show. Getting the gut fixed is one of the most important codes to crack for any functional-medicine doctor trying to get his or her patient healthy again.