Is there gold in bugs? Scientists and natural health experts say yes. The burgeoning field of the microbiome—the bacteria, fungi, viruses, and archaea that live in our guts (our stomachs and intestinal tracts)—is becoming the health issue to watch.
The gut microbiome, evidence says, is linked to numerous aspects of health—from inflammation and autoimmune diseases to weight gain and mood. As part of this gamut of connections, researchers are also eyeing its role in digestive disorders, including the vast and still perplexing universe of gluten sensitivity.
Because the gut microbiome is such a key to your overall health, understanding the lifestyle choices, as well as diet and supplement needs your unique microbiome require can be vital to your best health. Betsy’s wide variety of probiotic and digestive support products offer viable choices for your best digestive health.
One bug, two bugs …
Probiotic products were once the sole domain of natural foods stores, but now you can find them in mass-market outlets such as Starbucks and Target. But how do you know if something—whether a snack food or supplement—labeled “probiotic” will actually benefit you?
One of the greatest challenges in finding a useful probiotic product is that bacteria are extraordinarily diverse—much more so than types of wheatgrass powder or forms of vitamin D. It will be some time before health practitioners are able to prescribe particular species of probiotics, combinations, or doses tailored to a specific health issue. This makes probiotic product formulation still, to a large extent, as much art as science.
Further understanding of probiotics is particularly pressing for those looking to alleviate gluten sensitivity. Daniel Leffler, MD, a gastroenterologist and director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, suspects that new research will zero in on types of probiotics that don’t necessarily break down gluten itself, but rather modulate the gut response or the immune system—in other words, strains that “do something to make the gut a little more tolerant.”
Also, prebiotics—compounds that feed the beneficial microbes—could complement probiotics by boosting gut health for gluten-free eaters, says Joseph Murray, MD, a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who specializes in gluten sensitivity and intestinal inflammation. “If you’re taking a lot of wheat out of your diet, you’re reducing the materials available for the good, fermenting bugs in the colon,” he notes. “You need to think about replacing them.”
Food sensitivities are a logical fit for microbiome research. Gluten sensitivity—which can generate a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, upset stomach, and headaches, along with myriad nongastrointestinal effects—is still hotly debated. If you have celiac disease, a blood test and biopsy can provide a definitive diagnosis. “Beyond that, you get into a gray zone,” Murray says. No reliable test exists—yet—to determine if someone has nonceliac gluten sensitivity. The science might also be somewhat askew; though gluten is found in several grains, including barley and rye, many “gluten” studies to date have focused on wheat-based foods rather than gluten specifically.
“The main determinant of our flora is what [the flora] eat,” Murray says. Food can rapidly impact gut microbe populations. “Your bacteria can change by tomorrow if you eat something different,” he says. A recent study found that shifting healthy volunteers’ diets could drastically alter their microbiome profiles—even nudging them toward patterns of disease—in a matter of just a few days.
“Your bugs change when you go gluten free,” Murray explains. A recent animal study showed that feeding mice a gluten-free diet did, indeed, alter their microbiota. What this could mean in humans is that a diet-induced shift in microbe populations may trigger or even increase a food sensitivity, explains Leffler. “It may be that some diets modulate gastrointestinal symptoms because the type of food you eat modulates your microflora, and not because of the food directly,” he says.
Just how microbes could reduce symptoms of gluten sensitivity itself is still a guessing game—even for top physicians and researchers. In his own practice, Leffler finds that probiotics do improve some people’s symptoms, but there is no telling which person will benefit and which probiotic strains will work. “[Prescribing probiotics involves] a lot of trial and error—there’s no way around that right now,” he says.
It may not be the gluten
As knowledge about the role of the microbiome in health increases, will the gluten-free movement start to fade? “There’s a lot of hype about gluten-free diets. There are a lot of promises,” Murray notes. “As those promises are not fulfilled, there is going to be swingback the other way. The big challenge and direction is to make something that’s both gluten free and healthy.” Thanks to the beneficial-bacteria news, probiotics will likely play a role in that effort, whether the good bugs come from food—such as kefir or a probiotic-fortified cheese—or in a pill.
Gluten—as a sole point of sensitivity—might also be challenged as new research and different dietary approaches emerge. In fact, for many people, the symptoms of gluten sensitivity may actually result from something called “fructose malabsorption” or overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, says Melinda Dennis, RD, a registered dietitian and nutritional coordinator for the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Enter the recent emergence and popularity of the low-FODMAP diet: reducing foods with Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols, which include not only wheat products, but also some dairy, legumes, stone fruits, other fruits such as apples and pears, and some sweeteners. People and scientists alike are beginning to ask: Is it gluten or is it FODMAPs?
But as with any diet, Murray says, given the early nature of the research, “if it doesn’t work, don’t keep at it.” And consider the overall nutritional value of any diet you adopt, he adds. The low-FODMAP diet, for example, is low in fiber and can starve some of the good bugs that live in your gut.
When it comes to identifying which foods cause an individual to experience negative effects, finding the specific links between trigger and symptom will be key. “The next frontier is not just identifying who [gut microbes] are,” Murray says. The gut “is a community of interacting bacteria. Understanding what that community is doing and how it’s interacting with us is a huge challenge.”
Obviously, when it comes to our microbiome health, there is no silver bullet solution. Instead, paying close attention to the kinds of foods we eat and the reactions our bodies have to those foods can help us create the unique diet and lifestyle plan that will lead to our best health. Supplemental probiotics and digestive support products can be a part of this healthy diet and lifestyle plan. At Betsy’s, we strive to ask the right questions so that we can help you find the best digestive support supplements for you.
Betsy’s Note: This article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease. Consult your healthcare provider.
Article copyright 2017 by Delicious Living and Katherine Harmon Courage. All rights reserved. Used with permission.