Gut Health Is Now So Bad in America That Scientists Are Proposing A Bacteria Bank

October 16, 2018

The old saying goes that we are what we eat. We might not quite so literally transform into that noodle or nugget, but a look at our gut reveals the whole truth and nothing but. See, there’s a reason why scientists are now suggesting the launch of a global initiative to compile a repository of microbes that we simply can’t afford to risk being wiped out. We’re seeing an unprecedented rate of decline and diversity in gut bacteria in the Western world and all the symptoms that result from an unhealthy digestive tract. So, while a cursory glance might deem the project ludicrous, it has my full support for a plethora of reasons.

The ‘Standard American Diet’ is comprised of all things beige, fatty, salty and sugary. It lacks adequate nutrition and is essentially akin to poisoning the body. Long-term deprivation of the vitamins and minerals needed to serve as the building blocks for cell repair and growth, a lack of fiber and chronic exposure to high levels of salt, saturated fats and high-fructose corn syrup are the ultimate recipe for disease.

Our bodies work best when we consume, absorb, and excrete on a regular basis. Take the food in, absorb the good stuff from it and pass it out. The bulk of what we eat therefore needs to be fresh fruits and vegetables that are rich in all the nutrients that we need for our bodies to operate properly. All that cellulose then serves as the bulk for our intestines to pass down via peristalsis until it’s time to, well, excuse ourselves to the restroom.

A lot of what gets passed through us–combined with the fiber from our food–is excess bacteria that have done their job as a digestive aid. It’s important that these pass through; if they hang around in high numbers, they will ferment excessively, causing a whole host of unpleasant side effects such as bloating and cramps. But it’s not just something as trivial as bloating that we should be concerned about: many bacteria produce toxic products as they metabolize and these need to be expelled as quickly as possible. Otherwise, they risk being absorbed by the body, or lead to conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Having a diverse flora helps keep harmful organisms at bay and it has been shown that populations who have a heavily plant-based diet in various places around the globe have a much more diverse digestive ecosystem. If you needed another reason to go vegan, this certainly would be it! These also tend to be communities that lack the synthetic additives that we have plagued our foods with. Artificial sweeteners are some of the most toxic to our guts, so avoid them at all costs.

But our gut health is suffering not purely due to poor dietary decisions; stress is also coming into play. Oh yes, that thing that ruins just about every part of our bodies if we let it hang around too long! When it comes to our intestinal health, stress is so harmful because of the intimate connection between our guts and our brains. When we are stressed, changes often arise in our hormonal and neuronal pathways that alter the composition of flora within our digestive systems. This is often the cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), for example.

Stress and diet are enough to result in disaster, but we’re throwing even more into the mix, I’m afraid. Our sedentary lifestyles, regular consumption of chlorinated water, exposure to air pollution and frequent use of antibiotics are destroying our gut biodiversity too.

The main aims of the “bacteria bank” are to culture organisms extracted from people in communities around the world. This would allow scientists to study the effects on gut health of these different bugs and research cures for many of the diseases that we are facing as a result of our poor lifestyle choices. Much like the Svalbard Seed Vault, this repository could be drawn upon to boost health and help cure disease, particularly if we ever reach desperate times.

While I hope the project goes full steam ahead, as we know, prevention is always easier than the arduous treatment process of disease. Therefore, I encourage you to spend a little time thinking about your gut health and how you can help boost diversity naturally. Here are some tips:

  1. Dramatically increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables that you eat. Try to focus on organic wherever possible, cook via gentle methods such as steaming and aim to “eat the rainbow”, as it were: getting all the essential nutrients you need.
  2. Up your consumption of fermented foods. Sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and sourdough all count! They are so easy to make yourself, too, so make a project out of it and impress your roommates!
  3. Use a water filter to get rid of some of that chlorine before you drink it. Every little helps.
  4. Build up a strong immune system by keeping stress levels down and getting enough sleep so that you’re less likely to contract illness and subsequently reach for antibiotics. It’s also worth mentioning that many of the illnesses we get this time of the year are viral and antibiotics will do nothing to help you if that’s the case. Instead, get in lots of nourishing soups, ginger, garlic, lemon and rest. They will sort you out!
  5. Keep active. Exercise helps to reduce stress and prevent our gut health from swaying towards an unhealthy imbalance. Plus, a healthy gut equals a happy brain, so get outside and run a lap.

Do you consider your gut health? What are your favorite ways of keeping healthy?

Also by Kat: Claire Foy’s Views On Living With Anxiety Are So Comforting. 5 Tips Inspired By The Queen

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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