Gut health- Look after your gut bugs!

“All disease begins in the gut” – Hippocrates (460-370 BC)

It’s quite amazing that Hippocrates stated this all those years ago. How did it get forgotten for so long?!  Sometimes the significance of gut health and the bacteria can be overlooked when it could otherwise reduce or even completely treat various  symptoms and illnesses.  There needs to be a greater awareness of this important concept amongst us all, especially in mainstream medicine.  This is an insight into one particular and very significant  aspect of the gut ,the gut bacteria.


In terms of the numbers of cells in our body, there are 90 trillion bacteria and 10 trillion human cells. So, really we are 10% human and 90% bacteria!  Most of these are in our gut and their  weight  could be up to 2kg! The gut itself has various functions  including protecting us from foreign matter. A simple analogy- Imagine taking a meal and blending it into a liquid. Now if you ate this, then it would be digested and absorbed- all is well. However, if this blended liquid was injected intravenously, of course that would be detrimental. Many food molecules,  pathogens & toxins enter the  gut so it is under continual surveillance –   it is no wonder that we have such a sophisticated immune system here.  Our gut is the only organ system in the body to have its own independently functioning nervous and lymphatic systems –  and rightly so.

Generally speaking, there are good, friendly  bacteria   in various parts of the body. Most of these are in the gut – so let’s chat a bit about  what they do and why it is important to talk about these little friends.

The majority of the gut bacteria are in the large bowel.  There are about 400 species and more that have yet to be discovered but the most common ones are Lactobacilli, Bifidobacteria and E Coli. Other microbes in the gut include fungi,yeast and moulds. The good bacteria help to keep these in control and keep the bad bacteria out. When there is an imbalance in the good and the bad, we refer to this as “gut dysbiosis”.


1.          ImmunityApprox 70-80% of our immune system is in our gut and a significant part of this is the bacteria –as well as lymphoid tissue (GALT- gut associated lymphoid tissue)

2.         Make vitaminsBifidobacteria produces the vitamins B1 (thiamine) ,B2 (riboflavin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine) and vitamin K.

Others produce B9 (folic acid), B7 (biotin) & coenzyme Q10. Vitamin K production is particularly important as little is obtained in the diet.

3.        Make neurotransmittersCertain strains make tryptophan which is then converted to serotonin, a “happy hormone” that is reduced in various conditions such as depression. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the gut. Other goodies that are made by good bugs are tyrosine (then used to make hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and   dopamine)

4.       Anti viral and anti bacterial activity can destroy rota virus – a common cause for viral gastroenteritis. They can also kill off some bad bacteria through chemicals they produce- useful for travellers diarrhoea.

5.       Detoxificationcan break down certain toxins

6.       Gut repaira significant role to play in healing the gut

7.       Digestion –  help to break down starches and soluble fibre (e.g.  lentils ,beans,asparagus, onions and garlic) which then helps make SCFA (short chain fatty acids).

For those who want to know a little bit more– 3 SCFA’s are particularly important- butyrate, acetate and propionate. They are thought to be involved in tissue regeneration, destroying cancer cells and avoiding inflammation.  This is why the good bacteria are important in reducing or preventing  conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (Crohns, Ulcerative Colitis), asthma, eczema, psoriasis,  arthritis, certain cancers ( colon, breast and prostate) and autoimmune disorders.  In fact, studies have shown that eczema in 1 in 3 children improves with probiotics.


  1. Ensure there are enough good bugs – natural probiotics include yoghurt, kefir, kim chi (Korean pickled cabbage- yummy!), miso soup,pickles, sauerkraut and tempeh (fermented soy).  Probiotics are also available in pharmacies,health food shops and supermarkets- most would have Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium and are available as yoghurt drinks (e.g Yakult) as well as capsules. It is worth rotating the type of probiotic taken,say every few months.
  2. Feed the good  bugs– good bacteria like munching on foods such as lentils, onions,garlic, beans, bananas, leaks,oats  and asparagus.
  3. Don’t destroy the good bugsantibiotics,sugar, food preservatives and chlorine  all destroy the good bugs and can cause gut dysbiosis.
  4. Be mindful when eating– Digestion begins in the…….…mind?! If you are stressed, this affects the (parasympathetic) nervous system supplying the gut hence affecting digestion.  Sitting down when eating also increases acid production in the stomach that is needed for digestion, killing bad bugs and destroying toxins.
  5. Chew your food! –  there are enzymes in the saliva that are not in the rest of the gut. Eating slowly will also help over-eating. So, relax, chew and enjoy your food.
  6. Reduce gut “leakiness”- most commonly, gluten, dairy, sugar, chlorine, aspirin, alcohol, stress, food intolerances & nutrient deficiencies  can all increase intestinal permeability which then causes many things – including allowing food particles and toxins to enter the bloodstream – which can then have various effects such as malabsorption, allergy, autoimmune disease, inflammation, bowel symptoms (pain, constipation and diarrhoea).  E.g. a milk protein  (from A1 casein protein in cows milk) has been linked to schizophrenia,autism and LDL oxidation.
  7. Gut integrity– Nutrients such as vitamins A,C,E, B vitamins, zinc, selenium ,magnesium,chromium and omega 3 oils are important for the gut wall and repair. Other foods that maintain intergrity are- okra, aloe vera,chamomile, ginger, curcumin (turmeric) and manuka honey.
  8. Ensure adequate stomach acidity –Low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria)  is a more common problem than increased stomach acid. The amount we produce naturally declines with age, esp after 45 and can be reduced further by medications for “heartburn” (PPI- proton pump inhibitors eg losec, nexium). (P.S – “Heartburn”  symptoms can mean the acid is just in the wrong place- not necessarily that there is increased acid, hence given PPI can actually make things worse).  Protein digestion and some nutrient absorption requires acidic conditions. The  acidity normally  stimulates the gut further down including the pancreas to release digestive enzymes.Hence, low stomach acid means symptoms such as indigestion ,gas and bloating as well as other conditions such as asthma, arthritis, anaemia and food allergies.  If an intolerance is suspected, the food (likely wheat or dairy) needs to be eliminated for 3-6months then reintroduced to check on the symptoms. To overcome low acidity and aid protein digestion, simple measures can be considered- lemon juice on food, apple cider   vinegar, betaine  hydrochloride tablets.  Pineapple and papaya are also great as they have enzymes (bromelain and papain respectively) that    aid in digestion.


“The enteric nervous system {gut’s nervous system} is responsible for the gut’s personality: has its own memory, interacts with the brain and spinal cord,  interacts with the environment and largely responsible for functional gut symptoms Consequently there is a BRAIN-GUT axis “

Prof. Peter Gibson, Nutrition Conference, Melbourne 2012