Contributed by: Tia Blachowski
Contributed by: Tia Blachowski, LMT, CPT, CES, PES, FNS, Pn1, WFS, CPPC, MMACS
Personal experience for the first two paragraphs. TLDR: I’ve had a lot of gut issues. Skip ahead at will.
I was a small child when I first experienced serious gut illness. What I’m referencing isn’t the same kind of unpleasant stomach bug you may associate with the standard random grossness of a small child (believe me, as the mother of a toddler, I have instant mental images associated with small children and gut illness!) Rather, I was experiencing a persistent, years-long battle with digestive issues that will likely plague me intermittently all my life. Thankfully, this was one of the many areas of my worse-than-average childhood health that I coped with by developing a deep curiosity. Not only did I find power in changing my way of eating to accommodate my most relevant medical condition, but I found the medical tests (as unpleasant and gut-churning as barium swallows, upper-GI scoping, and other invasive tests are to reflect on now) fascinating like science fiction experiments, and the treatments (enemas, castor oil, mineral oil, medications, etc.) were a challenge to prove my willpower. I was, admittedly, a very strange kid. With a diagnosis of food-triggered migraines by age 5; a chronically inflamed, enlarged, and impacted colon by age 6; GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) by age 8; hypoglycemia on the borderline of Type 1 diabetes around age 9; intestinal parasites more than once before age 10; and over a dozen broken bones we assumed could be attributed to nutrient malabsorption; I was modifying my diet and attempting extreme remedies constantly by middle school. I was an active and productive kid, but I definitely had my share of lessons about the limits of diagnostics and basic medicine at an early age.
This trend unfortunately didn’t let up until I pursued deeper biochemical and nutritional education in adulthood. After a lot more testing, hardcore medications, and extreme diets, I ended up with lots of providers who would have suspicions about specific illnesses I may have, but ultimately only a couple more vague diagnoses like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), peptic/gastric bleeding ulcers, various food sensitivities, a reactive colon, and duodenal ulcers. Fun, attractive stuff, right? Well, about this time I was in my early 20s, a massage therapist with lots of “wellness” colleagues, and was beginning to experiment with supplements, natural remedies, and holistic solutions. I had more than a few “woo-woo” encounters with practitioners who had good intentions but literally no scientific criteria for their recommendations. I had some natural remedies and diet ideas that were recommended for one reason and ultimately were helpful for entirely unrelated but scientifically-sound reasons. The journey with me and my troubled gut has been a storied one, for sure. But shockingly, with all of this extensive deep-diving about gut health, the first time I encountered quality probiotics and the benefits of whole food fiber was during my recovery from malaria in 2012. A wonderful friend (and now a truly brilliant medical professional) who I knew through our pre-med program gave me a potent probiotic and chia seeds to combat my constant nausea. While the extreme treatment I’d received for malaria had saved my life by eradicating a resilient parasite that was *destroying* my system, it had also nuked the populations of beneficial bacteria responsible for *maintaining* my system. The probiotics absolutely helped over time, and the chia seeds (which were initially recommended for blood sugar regulation) were a perfect addition to my routine as a complementary prebiotic.
I say all of this to introduce how and why probiotics can be such a key component to wellness. Even while eating “all the right things” and avoiding “all the wrong things”, my health would never stabilize while using medications and strategies that didn’t support a healthy gut microbiome. Only with sufficient populations of the right beneficial bacteria species and strains have I ever found balanced health, and now I find myself in the best health of my life. With the complicated system I possess, my various genetic considerations/ hereditary conditions, and the extensive damage to my body over the years of adventurous living, it’s truly incredible to be at a point of saying such a thing.
What is a microbiome?
Omics is a helpful emerging field that allows for observing relationships in complex systems. Rather than simply identifying the presence or lack of a specific factor (in this case, a microbe or lack of said microbe), microbiomics is able to address the proportions and relationships of different microbes. Essentially, a microbiome is a small ecosystem of living organisms in a specific environment. We tend to discuss this as a way of describing how many species of microbes behave cooperatively and/or antagonistically to promote the overall balance of the small system about which we’re speaking. In this case, the microbiome would be the gut of an individual with reference to the life within it. Another term that you may see referenced in these discussions is the “holobiome”, which basically references the overall sum of an individual in cooperative existence with all of the microorganisms that support the individual. Because our gut microbiome (along with other environments in the body) is so dependent on the existence and balanced ecosystem of many other organisms, the entirety of the synergistic system is referred to as the holobiome. Occasionally these concepts are discussed interchangeably and can become confusing, but in short, just know that “omics” means the overall interplay of all relevant factors and allows for better practical understanding of our own microbiology.
So what exactly is a “pro-biotic”?
In short, a probiotic is a source of live microorganisms for the gut that ultimately results in improved health. Common targets for probiotic use are digestive and/or immune concerns, but these barely scratch the surface of how many applications are currently scientifically supported. In functional medicine contexts, we tend to treat dosing of beneficial microorganisms as an essential habit for stable health. Many species of microbes should be considered for their various benefits, and the strain of each species can be just important to highlight. Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Enterococcus, Escherichia, Bacillus, and Streptococcus all have beneficial species and strains. That last name might look familiar in a bad way, because a large number of Streptococci bacteria species are responsible for serious human illnesses, yet two Streptococci species are involved in starter cultures for foods like butter and cheese. In any conversation about probiotics, we can’t avoid facing the common Western aversion to microbial concepts. In the United States, sanitation and hygiene practices are often promoted as black and white obsessive rules. We avoid microbes at an extreme level, and in turn, we’ve actually caused accelerated evolution of many harmful microbes while consistently scorching our own internal populations of microorganisms that could help. Additionally, our food supplies are regulated to prevent substantial populations of beneficial bacteria in most products where we historically may have benefited from large doses of said helpers. I’m not necessarily complaining, as food-borne illness was absolutely a historically life-threatening problem for humans, but it’s important to be aware of the consequences of a hyper-sanitized food supply. Because of this, we must actively seed and support our gut microbiome just as we would grow and feed a garden or a flock of livestock. We need habits that provide consistent significant additions of fermented foods, probiotic supplements, and the foods that support our helpful microflora: prebiotics.
What exactly are “pre-biotics”?
Generally, a prebiotic food would be a complex carbohydrate source that supports healthy populations of probiotic microorganisms in the gut. This is where we can really start to get practical with action steps, because feeding the beneficial microbes will generally happen naturally with a well-balanced diet containing plenty of whole foods and organic produce. The reason we specify the importance of organics is that we must consider the consequences of pesticides and disruptive chemicals that simply demolish the microbial colonies we want to support. Everything from certain plastics to anti-inflammatory medications can eradicate substantial numbers of our gut helpers, so it’s no surprise that the choice to consume or avoid herbicides, pesticides, and other unfriendly chemicals has a significant role in the microbiome’s ability to maintain homeostasis. When choosing prebiotic sources, seek whole high-fiber foods rather than highly-processed sources of fiber that are not in their whole state. I love organic chia seeds for this purpose, as they have excellent qualities in addition to an almost carbohydrate-neutral effect on blood glucose levels while adding substantial fiber. Not all prebiotic foods are fiber-rich, as some simply help feed beneficial microbes with oligosaccharides (like honey) or cultivate a better gut environment (like vinegars and citric acid sources). Whatever your eating strategy, prebiotics will likely easily fall into play without need for a formal prebiotic supplement. One reason I advocate vinegars, avocados, and chia seeds is their utility in all diet styles from ketogenic to vegan high-carb.
For all humans, hydration is incredibly important, as most biochemical systems and beneficial organisms will require some amount of water involvement for everything from lymphatic (immune) function to basic chemical transport. Digestion is largely dependent on healthy hydration levels, and these needs increase with not only dry climates but also with high altitudes (both of which are relevant to most of us in Colorado).
I’ll address each of these topics (and then some, I’m sure) individually in greater depth in future articles that get more specific, but this is a basic summary of what I introduce to each client when addressing gut issues and recommendations. For each person, I encourage the first action steps to involve a food diary. Documenting is critical, but the emphasis should be listing the foods eaten at what time of day in relative amounts and any significant physical observations rather than obsessive detail. The eventual goal should be more like “What did I eat in the mornings that made me feel terrible two hours later every time?” and less of “How many calories did I eat for breakfast, and was I religiously eating only foods that I’m proud of?” After 10-30 days of consistent recording, we can usually see some easy adjustments that can be made to correct simple gut-irritating mistakes like replacing that protein shake that is helping you hit your macro numbers for protein intake but also contains ingredients like artificial sweeteners that are irritating your gut or giving you that afternoon migraine!
This is a general article that I hope introduces some concepts, but deeper reading can be found in some of the footnote links (and if you’re reading this from the future, our company’s additional blog posts). As always, please feel encouraged to research further and discover the most pertinent information for your individual circumstances. I believe in every person’s ability to become familiar with dense concepts, but I hope this is a helpful paraphrased introduction. Good luck, and I wish you all great gut health!
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