One of the questions that usually comes up when I talk about gut bacteria and the importance of traditional fermented foods and probiotic supplements is, “What types of things damage these bacteria in the first place?”
The real question should be, “What doesn’t damage them?” Our environments and lifestyles have become incredibly toxic to the microorganisms that make up our microbiome, and the damage can begin as early as birth.
Gut Health Begins at Birth
Our first “inoculation” of good gut bacteria occurs as our eyes, nose, lips, and mouth slide through our mother’s birth canal. This transfer of flora plants the "seed" for the initial colonies that begin to populate the respiratory, urogenital, and gastrointestinal tracts. More and more babies are being deprived of this initial inoculation thanks to rising cesarean section rates. In 1965, when cesarean section rates were first measured in this country, the surgery accounted for 4.5 percent of all births. By 2002, that number rose to 27 percent and by 2009, it was 34 percent.
See a list of all articles about Gut Bacteria in the Gut Bacteria and Probiotics Index
The second inoculation comes from colostrum, the “first milk” expressed for the first few days following birth. Babies who aren’t breastfed or born vaginally start with a huge disadvantage when it comes to establishing their microflora. (Learn more about the development of the microbiome in infancy.)
Things That Are Toxic to Gut Bacteria
Since all of us are past that stage, though, we need to concentrate on other factors that contribute to the decline in both the diversity and the number (sometimes total eradication of some species) of bacteria in our gut. It’s pretty obvious how most of the following things can destroy good bacteria, and the recommendation is to avoid them whenever possible.
- Antibiotic use. As opposed to probiotics (which means "for life"), antibiotics (which means "against life") indiscriminately destroy all bacteria in the body as a way of eliminating disease. Don't get me wrong, antibiotics can be lifesavers. When used prudently and properly—when nothing else will work—they can be very effective. But most people who take antibiotics never make any effort afterward to restore their good bacteria when the course of medication ends.
- Increased availability and use of over-the-counter products and medications, such as mouthwashes, aspirin, antacids, painkillers, and laxatives. NSAIDs, especially, can promote stomach and intestinal bleeding as well as increase the permeability of the entire GI tract. When the GI tract is more permeable, larger proteins, bacteria, and toxins are able to enter the bloodstream. This results in allergic reactions (food allergies), increased stress on the immune system, and the spread of toxins throughout the body. Researchers have also found that continued use of NSAIDs for rheumatoid arthritis can disrupt the intestinal mucus lining and flora and may even contribute to the continuance of the disease.
- Dramatic changes in our sanitation procedures, including widespread use of cleansers—particularly antibacterial soaps, shampoos, and creams.
- Chlorinated drinking water. Drinking chlorinated water can make it almost impossible to maintain ideal bacterial flora in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract because chlorine kills all bacteria, regardless of whether they are good or bad.
- Pesticide and herbicide use
- Douches and excessive colon cleanses
- Surgeries, colonoscopies, and chemotherapy/radiation therapy
- Exposure to pollutants such as heavy metals, including amalgam dental fillings. Having amalgam fillings in your mouth is like being hooked to up a mercury IV drip system. Mercury is extremely toxic. There’s little doubt that it disrupts the normal microflora in your mouth and affects the entire gut.
- Sterilized foods. During pasteurization, milk is heated to 162 degrees for a minimum of 15 seconds. This doesn’t eliminate bacteria, but drops some forms of bacteria to lower levels and extends shelf life. When you destroy the natural enzymes, proteins, and various forms of beneficial bacteria in raw milk, it can’t naturally ferment and remain consumable. It spoils. During ultra-pasteurization, milk or cream is heated almost instantaneously to about 280 degrees and then rapidly cooled. This extends shelf life, but also alters various proteins, flavor, and naturally occurring beneficial bacteria.
- Artificial food coloring. Food coloring is routinely added to food products to make them look more presentable. Research on these compounds has focused primarily on toxicity factors, but if you dig deeper, you’ll find that many food colorings have been shown to exhibit both antibacterial and antifungal properties. This is generally considered a positive attribute and marketed as such. However, when we begin to concentrate and purify or create these compounds synthetically, we run the risk of disrupting the natural order of microflora in our bodies.
- Antidepressants and sleeping pills. Antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and sleeping pills are all fat soluble. This allows them to more easily penetrate the intestinal wall. There is a direct and extensive connection between our intestines and our brain.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This family of antidepressants is thought to relieve depression by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. But 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is in the digestive system. With these medications, serotonin is diverted from the intestinal tract, causing a chemical imbalance in the area. This explains side effects like fluctuations in appetite, nausea, and stomach upset. These chemicals attach to gut receptors that tend to sedate and depress gastrointestinal movement, resulting in constipation. This partially explains why the gut produces serotonin. It helps maintain a state of calm in the area so proper digestion and absorption can take place.
- Altered fats in food products. Fats are necessary in producing and maintaining cell walls. Fats provide the barrier that keep many toxins, pathogens, and water-soluble compounds from freely crossing into the bloodstream. A diet containing artificial or poor-quality fats leads to permeable cell walls and the resulting difficulties with allergies, toxicity, and a chronic load on the immune system. The cell wall is not our only barrier to the outside world, it also is the “soil” or “field” where the protective bacterial microflora live and flourish. A break in the cell wall or barrier could be compared to having sewage drip into your supply of drinking water.
- Increased consumption of carbohydrates. Bacteria feed on sugar, particularly pathogenic bacteria that have gained the upper hand. Yeast also feeds on sugar. Yeast doesn’t feed on yeast. In the past, I’ve been criticized for recommending the use of products like nutritional yeast, lactic acid yeast products, etc., and I’m sure I probably will be again. Some individuals avoid ingesting any form of yeast or even fermented products on the basis that yeast promotes the growth of yeast in the body. Yeast is naturally present in the body or microbial flora, and under ideal circumstances, it is just another component that can be beneficial when kept in balance. Granted, a yeast infection like that from Candida albicans is definitely an indication that the microflora are out of balance. The permanent answer is to restore the entire microbial population to normal.
- Anti-cholesterol drugs. Cholesterol is a key component of nerve insulation. Cholesterol is essential in the construction of cell walls. I have no doubt in the near future we will look back and see that anti-cholesterol medication was one of the most heinous and destructive medical practices in recent history. It’s one human experiment you don’t want to be part of. CBS News reported that one in every four men aged 45 and over were now taking statins, the most popular family of anti-cholesterol drugs.
- Dramatic increase in the use and variety of vaccinations. We’ve seen an explosion in vaccines, and it looks like a trend that will continue. We’re delving into uncharted territory when we start injecting strange, fractionated viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens into our bloodstream with the hope our immune system will be able to deal with them. What might be even worse is the effect this has long term on our microbial flora and that of future generations, and no one seems to be concerned.
Altering Microflora Has Long-Term Consequences
All of these factors have been increasing over at least the past 50 years. As a result, each successive generation in the developed world has been losing an increasing number of microbial species. This scenario may help explain why we are seeing dramatic increases in diseases that were once considered rare, and why diseases that historically were only present in older adults are now routinely showing up in childhood.
One of the most recent and blatant illustrations of the problem is the emergence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections. We’re constantly hearing about the dangers of these antibiotic resistant infections that are mysteriously showing up in communities around the country. More people in the U.S. now die each year from MRSA infections than from AIDS. The latest figures suggest that close to one million people develop MRSA infections each year, and 5 percent of those die from it. What we haven’t been told is that MRSA is connected to the vaccine for pneumococcal disease.
Pneumococcal disease is an infection caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumonia. The associated diseases are pneumonia, meningitis, bacteremia (bloodstream infection), and otitis media (middle ear infection). To prevent these diseases, the pneumococcal vaccine was developed and is now given routinely in a series to infants beginning at 2 months of age. From all outside indications, it would appear that the vaccination program has been a success. Pneumonia, meningitis, and the other associated infections are far less common today. But, we’ve paid a price.
Streptococcus pneumonia is one species of bacteria normally found in healthy individuals. Again, the key to remaining healthy has been to keep these potential pathogens in check with competing strains. Since we’ve eliminated Streptococcus pneumonia, this has left its space open to the bacterium that normally would compete with it—Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. Through the vaccine, we’ve effectively eliminated its competition and allowed it to flourish and gain a stronger foothold in the microbial world that lives within us. It’s a long-term, extremely dangerous consequence that we are just beginning to understand.
Read More About Gut Bacteria and Digestive Health
Gut Bacteria and Probiotics Article Index
See a full list of articles by Dr. Williams about gut flora, probiotics, and the microbiome. Read more
Signs That You Have Too Much Bad Bacteria in Your Gut
Learn about the digestive and other health symptoms that may indicate you have dysbacteriosis, or an imbalance of gut bacteria. Read more
How to Choose the Best Probiotic Supplement
Learn the four criteria that Dr. Williams uses to decide whether a probiotic supplement is worth purchasing. Read more
How to Restore and Improve Gut Bacteria
Learn three strategies for restoring your gut health by improving the microflora residing there. Read more