Did you know: the health of your gut can be the sole reason why you have lots of energy or suffer from chronic fatigue?
If you have chronic fatigue syndrome, it’s likely you saw the study published in 2017 that linked gut health to whether or not you had chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis. This study showed that based solely on the bacteria found in your gut researchers could predict with 84% accuracy whether or not you had chronic fatigue syndrome. (1)
All of you with IBS and chronic fatigue can breathe a sigh of relief. Your symptoms are not in your head. They’re in your gut. I wrote this post to help familiarize you with all of the terms floating around the internet that relate to gut health. Consider this post your companion guide to better understanding your gut.
Your gut: a brief introduction
Your digestive tract is home to an estimated 100 trillion organisms. To help you grasp just how massive that number is, consider that all the other cells in your body add up to only 37 trillion. (2) The bacteria in your gut outnumber all the cells that make up “you” nearly 3:1. The current shift in the medical community is now viewing the gut to be an organ all unto itself.
In this post, I’ll introduce you to all of the commonly used or “buzzwords” relating to your gut. By the end of this article, you’ll know more about your gut than most. You’ll see why gut health is absolutely essential for optimizing energy levels and overcoming fatigue.
There is no shortage of medical-sounding words that are now commonly used to describe different aspects of your gut. Below, I’ll outline the most common words and outline what they all mean.
The total number of microbial organisms within your gut. This includes both friendly and unfriendly organisms: bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
This is used synonymously with microbiota.
This term is often used to describe the total count of microorganisms within your gut environment.
Generally, this refers to an organism that provides a benefit to its host. It is often used to describe the total number of beneficial or friendly bacteria found in your gut.
Biofilm is a substance produced by bacteria that allows them to adhere to a surface. It is a gooey substance that can challenge the efficacy of antibiotics. Biofilm could be the reason why your last course of antibiotics was not effective.
A consumed microorganism that, when intentionally consumed, provides benefit to the host. Naturally occurring bacteria found in fermented foods are generally not considered probiotics. Instead, probiotic refers to the supplementation of microorganisms – usually through a pill or a powder.
A substance, that when consumed by the host, provides sustenance to the beneficial organisms. In general, these are non-digestible carbohydrates (also called resistant starches). Prebiotics are arguably more important than probiotics. I like to think of them as food for the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
What’s inside your gut?
Your gut is an incredibly intricate network of organisms. We still have much to learn before we have an in-depth understanding. Remember it was just in 2017 that researchers published that groundbreaking study linking your gut health to chronic fatigue syndrome. To date, the majority of our knowledge is weighted towards the bacteria found in the gut. And even this information is poorly known and understood.
The information we have on common residents of the digestive tract has come about through the analysis of feces through stool samples. That means that scientists culture or grow bacteria found in the stools of different subjects. This is thought to be only a rough approximation of the many different types of organisms found in the digestive tract. Not all organisms lend themselves to be cultured or grown from one’s stool sample.
In the study I referenced above regarding chronic fatigue and gut bacteria, researchers used an entirely new way to examine gut bacteria. They used a technique called metagenomic testing. Instead of culturing bacteria, they looked at the DNA or genetic material of the bacteria. This new technology is set to create an explosion of new research on how your gut health affects your overall health.
Recent research suggests that there are also resident viruses, bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria), fungi, and protozoa. To date, researchers have found more than 1300 different bacteria species in the human gut. The different types of bacteria species are unique to the individual. Of the 1300 possible options, each of you is likely to have a few hundred specific species of bacteria. (3, 4)
The diversity of bacteria found in your gut is one hypothesis as to why one person may respond well to some foods but be intolerant of others.
Where are the bacteria located?
Your GI tract is not a continuous mixture of bacteria strains. Instead, pockets of varying microbial environments are scattered throughout. The availability of oxygen, the pH, and nutrient availability will determine the types and amounts of microorganisms present in a given area.
Below, I’ll give you a brief run-down of the types of bacterial species found in different parts of your body. Please note that the below totals are based on healthy models. You can have a bacterial overgrowth in any of the below structures.
- 0-100 species
- Home to: candida, h. pylori, lactobacillus, streptococcus
- 1,000,000 species
- Home to: Lactobacillus, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus
- Home to: Bifidobacteriaceae, Enterobacteriaceae, Clostridiaceaae, and Prevotellaceae
How does your microbiome develop?
Your microbiome changes as you mature. The species you had in your gut as a child are likely different than the species currently inhabiting your gut. But your experiences early-on in life set the foundation for your gut health.
There is some evidence to suggest your microbial ecosystem begins developing while you are still in the womb (5). Babies that have been exposed to antibiotics while in the womb have an increased likelihood of becoming obese later in life. (6). However, the real changes to your microbiome begin at the time of birth.
Those born via cesarian section have delayed colonization of beneficial bacteria species. The birth canal is rich in lactobacillus bacteria species. (7) These Lactobacillus species should be the founding colonies of a baby’s microbiome. (8) However, if a baby is born via cesarian section, the founding colonies of bacteria tend to be streptococcus bacteria. (9)
There has not been research linking chronic fatigue syndrome to babies born via cesarian section. Yet the initial or founding colonies of gut bacteria are thought to be a contributor to allergic, inflammatory, and metabolic disorders. All of which are common in chronic fatigue syndrome.
For example, baby’s born via cesarian section are thought to have an increased risk of developing celiac disease, obesity, and asthma. (9, 10) For situations where a c-section is unavoidable, transferring a vaginal swab to the infant after birth is becoming a common practice. (11)
The second most important aspect of developing a healthy microbiome is proper feeding. After birth, the baby’s microbiome becomes influenced by whether, and for how long, he/she is breastfed. (12) Breast milk contains both prebiotics required to feed the bacteria in the baby’s newly developed gut. (13) Breastfeeding is essential to forming a foundational microbiome.
Once solid foods become introduced, the beginning of the transition to an adult microbiome begins. As the bacterial colony is still quite fragile, dietary patterns and antibiotic use can greatly influence the bacterial colonies.
Your microbiome (aka: the adult microbiome)
It is thought that the adult microbiome is a relatively stable entity. Meaning that your experiences early in life have a profound impact on what your adult gut health is like. With that said, your adult microbiome can be significantly altered by the following:
- Antibiotic use
- Hygiene factors
- Irregular sleep habits
- GI illness/disorders
- A Mediterranean or paleo style diet is linked to a more diverse and healthy gut microbiome when compared to the standard Westen diet. (14)
In general, the adult microbiome is thought to consist of three types of microbiomes:
- The composes 60-70% of the bacteria species.
- For the most part, these species are very stable.
- These bacteria are formed by the environment you were exposed to early in life, your genetics, and your dietary patterns.
- This composes 20-25% of the bacteria species.
- This varies by diet, season, medications, travel, and other health factors.
- The variable colonies of bacteria may not re-establish quickly after using antibiotics.
- These are microbes found in your food, the air, water, your environment, etc.
- Probiotics supplements make up a large number of transient microbes.
- These microbes are thought to not last longer than a couple of weeks.
- They can help to modulate the core and variable microbiomes thus greatly altering the symptoms (or, lack of symptoms) you experience in your gut.
Even though probiotics and fermented foods only offer you transient bacterial colonies, they offer enough of an influence to completely change your gut symptoms. This is why some cases of irritable bowel syndrome can be completely resolved by adding probiotic or beneficial bacterial species.
A healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome. Yogurt alone does not offer enough microbial diversity to your gut. I recommend rotating through different types of fermented foods. This can include foods like:
- Beet kvass
If the above foods do not appeal to your palate, a probiotic supplement will be necessary. Similar to foods, I recommend rotating your probiotic supplements on a regular basis. This will ensure you have a diverse microbiota.
What does a healthy microbiome look like?
There is not an ideal microbiome that every human on Earth should try to attain. The “ideal” microbiome for one living in Canada’s Yukon will be very different than the ideal microbiome for one living in New Guinea. Within each geographic or, cultural location, there is likely a suitable microbiome that will allow you better thrive in that particular environment. Remember, the food you eat plays a profound role on the types of bacteria that inhabit your gut.
General changes in the bacterial species of one’s feces can be indicative of certain GI disorders. While more data is needed, it is entirely likely that the bacteria found in your stool before developing chronic fatigue syndrome or IBS was very different than the bacteria found in your stool after developing CFS and/or IBS.
I hope that through continued research we will find exactly what a healthy microbiome looks like. And in so doing, help those with chronic fatigue regain the health of their microbiome.
Ok, now you know more about your gut than most.
It’s time to hear from you!
How has the health of your gut influenced your fatigue/energy levels?
Also published on Medium.