In the introductory articles in the series we established that importance of gut wall integrity and microbial balance. Then in part III we looked at why these two factors are very important for determining gut health, and some of the many things that can go wrong in our body as a result of a compromised gut. In this article we will look at some common factors that damage our gut.
Antibiotics could be seriously damaging your gut.

#1: Antibiotics

Even a single short course of antibiotics has been shown to influence significant microbial changes in the gut with long-term impacts on good colonies of flora. (1) This study showed that the antibiotic ciprofloxacin reduced the diversity of gut microbes with long-term effects on the numbers of at least a third of species. Although the diversity eventually recovered, even after six months some species were not fully restored. (2)

The microbiota affected by antibiotics exhibited a reduced capacity to digest certain foods, absorb iron, and produce the important molecules that connect the liver and colon, create bile acids (for digestion) and generate hormones and cholesterol (cell building blocks). The study stated, “Although some of the changes are oscillatory and can be reversed at the end of the treatment, others seem irreversible.” (3)

The contraceptive pill has also been shown to disrupt gut flora in a similar way to antibiotics. This has a knock on effect to the correct synthetisation of certain hormones.

#2: Inflammatory foods

While you might think that the Paleo diet is just an excuse to act like a caveman and stuff yourself full of steak, it is actually a way of eating centred on supporting gut health. For this reason it eliminates inflammatory foods such as grains (particularly those containing gluten), most diary and refined sugar. For people that follow an even stricter protocol like one for autoimmunity there are further restrictions on foods such as egg whites, nuts, seeds and vegetables known as nightshades, again the reason being that these are inflammatory and can disrupt the gut.

As discussed in this article grains contain all sorts of inflammatory proteins such as lectins and gluten. Similarly dairy contains a protein called casein, which is a molecular structure to close to that of gluten. Like gluten, casein is not fully digestible can cause damage to the lining of the gut. Casein intolerance is common; in fact over 50% of people that are gluten intolerant are also thought to suffer from issues with casein. While I seem to tolerate a bit of butter and cheese every now and then, I do steer clear of most other diary. I will be addressing this topic in more detail in a later article.

Nuts, seeds and egg whites also contain protective elements and may not be fully broken down in your gut. If you have signs of leaky gut eliminating some of these foods for a period will speed up the healing process. Nightshades are a family of vegetables that includes white potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and aubergine. They are inflammatory because they contain glycoalkaloids, compounds that can also damage the lining of the gut and cause systemic inflammation. For most people they are a healthy choice, but if you are already dealing with gut issues then eliminating them for a while could be beneficial.

Sugar and other refined processed foods will do nothing good for the bacteria in your gut. Sugar is the perfect fuel for things like Candida and as we know that can quickly spiral out of control. If you feel well then some treats every now and then are fine. However, if you need to focus on healing your gut then it’s a good idea to avoid foods that aren’t in their whole form.

Artificial sweeteners have also been shown to negatively alter our gut flora, so no luck there either! In this study on mice, one group were fed regular sugar and another group were fed artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharine. After 11 weeks the mice given artificial sweeteners had significantly reduce ability to absorb glucose due to the effects of the artificial sweeteners on gut bacteria. The fact these sweeteners contain no calories certainly does not make them a safe alternative. (4)

#3: Alcohol 

Alcohol puts stress on the body and has been shown to cause inflammation in the gut and damage the integrity of your intestinal walls. I would be completely hypocritical to tell anyone to give up alcohol, but knowledge is power.

Everything we put in our mouth can have a profound impact on our gut and hence our overall health. We must not only consider the impact of food on us, as hosts, but also think of the trillions of microbes that inhabit our gut and how our food choices will influence these communities. Ultimately these communities dictate our health.

A note on C sections and infant gut health

Babies are born with a sterile gut meaning it is not populated by microbes until the child is out of the womb. The gut begins to be colonised immediately after birth. Ideally babies should be coated with bacteria from the mother’s vaginal tract and then the breast when they are fed. However, when a baby is born by Caesarean section they can miss out on this important exposure. Additionally mothers that have C sections are often given antibiotics which can further disrupt the development of the baby’s own gut.

Medical researchers are increasingly emphasising the relationship between the way a baby is delivered and the development of its microbiota in their studies. The data suggests that babies born by Caesarean section are more likely to be susceptible to allergies and other health issues. This paper looked at the increase in the number of births by C section and the concurrent rise in autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes, Chrone’s disease and MS as well as allergic diseases like asthma. (5)  It refers to VD (vaginal delivery) and CD (Caesarean delivery).

“The immune system undergoes major development during infancy and is highly related to the microbes that colonize the intestinal tract. It has been suggested that different initial exposures depend on mode of delivery (VD vs. CD). During VD, the contact with the maternal vaginal and intestinal flora is an important source for the start of the infant’s colonization. During CD, this direct contact is absent, and non-maternally derived environmental bacteria play an important role for infants’ intestinal colonization. … if the intestinal flora develops differently depending on the mode of delivery, the postnatal development of the immune system might also be different. Available epidemiological data show that atopic diseases appear more often in infants after caesarean delivery than after vaginal delivery.” (6)

Obviously going into child birth we do not always have the privilege to choose our method of delivery; however, this is important research that we are likely to hear more about in future.  Scientists are now looking at whether the bacteria passed onto a child through a vaginal delivery can in anyway be replicated, such as just a swab.


Final words on things that might be damaging your gut

This is just a snapshot of some of the common ways that we end up with a damaged gut. It can happen far more easily than we might expect and damage can take months or even years to repair. This isn’t supposed to terrify you, but is an important reminder that our bodies are fragile and we should always do our best to treat them with love and respect.

In the final article in this gut health series we will look at some ways your can support and heal your gut.

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