8 Diet and Lifestyle Choices That Greatly Impact Your Gut Flora
By Daisy Coyle
The human gut is home to more than 100 trillion bacteria, known as the "gut flora."
Having a healthy gut flora is incredibly important for your overall health.
Interestingly, many diet, lifestyle and other environmental factors can negatively affect your gut bacteria.
What are Gut Bacteria and Why are They Important?
Hundreds of species of bacteria reside in your gut. Some of them are friendly, while others are not.
Each group plays a role in your health and requires different nutrients for growth (3).
Therefore, it's important to keep your gut bacteria as friendly and abundant as possible.
Without further ado, here are eight surprising things that can cause harm to your gut bacteria.
Not Eating a Diverse Range of Foods
Generally, a rich and diverse gut flora is considered to be a healthy one (12).
A diet consisting of a wide variety of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can lead to a more diverse gut flora. In fact, changing up your diet can alter your gut flora profile after only a few days (12, 15, 16).
This is because the food you eat provides nutrients that help bacteria grow. A diet rich in whole foods provides your gut with a variety of nutrients that help promote the growth of different types of bacteria, resulting in a more diverse gut flora.
Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, much of the diversity in the Western diet has been lost. Today, 75 percent of the world's food supply comes from only 12 plants and five animal species (12).
Their diets are generally unaffected by the Western world and are rich in fiber and a variety of plant protein sources.
Summary: A diet lacking in a variety of different whole foods can result in a loss of gut flora diversity. This may have a number of negative health effects.
Lack of Prebiotics in the Diet
Prebiotics are a type of fiber that passes through the body undigested and promotes the growth and activity of friendly gut bacteria (19).
Many foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains, naturally contain prebiotic fiber.
A lack of them in the diet may be harmful to your overall digestive health (20).
Foods high in prebiotics include:
- Lentils, chickpeas and beans
- Jerusalem artichokes
One study in 30 obese women found that taking a daily prebiotic supplement for three months promoted the growth of the healthy bacteria Bifidobacterium and Faecalibacterium (21).
These fatty acids are the main nutrient source for the cells in your colon. They can be absorbed into your blood, where they promote metabolic and digestive health, reduce inflammation and can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer (23, 24).
Summary: Prebiotics are a type of fiber commonly found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They are important for increasing healthy gut bacteria like Bifidobacterium.
Drinking Too Much Alcohol
In terms of gut health, chronic alcohol consumption can cause serious problems, including dysbiosis.
One study examined the gut flora of 41 alcoholics and compared them to 10 healthy individuals who consumed little-to-no alcohol. Dysbiosis was present in 27 percent of the alcoholic population, but it was not present in any of the healthy individuals (29).
Another study compared the effects of three different types of alcohol on gut health.
For 20 days, each individual consumed 9.2 ounces (272 ml) of red wine, the same amount of de-alcoholized red wine or 3.4 ounces (100 ml) of gin each day (30).
Gin decreased the number of beneficial gut bacteria, whereas red wine actually increased the abundance of bacteria known to promote gut health and decreased the number of harmful gut bacteria like Clostridium.
The beneficial effect of moderate red wine consumption on gut bacteria appears to be due to its polyphenol content.
Summary: Generally speaking, alcohol consumption has a harmful effect on gut bacteria. However, the polyphenol content in red wine may have a protective effect on gut bacteria when consumed in moderation.
Antibiotics are important medicines used to treat infections and diseases caused by bacteria, such as urinary tract infections and strep throat.
They work by either killing bacteria or preventing them from multiplying and have saved millions of lives over the past 80 years.
However, one of their drawbacks is that they affect both good and bad bacteria. In fact, even a single antibiotic treatment can lead to harmful changes in the composition and diversity of the gut flora (33, 34, 35).
Antibiotics usually cause a short-term decline in beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, and can temporarily increase harmful bacteria like Clostridium (36).
However, antibiotics can also lead to long-term alterations in the gut flora. After completing a dose of antibiotics, most bacteria return after 1–4 weeks, but their numbers often don't return to previous levels (37, 38, 39).
In fact, one study found that a single dose of antibiotics reduced the diversity of Bacteroides, one of the most dominant bacterial groups, and increased the number of resistant strains. These effects remained for up to two years (40).
Summary: Antibiotics can affect the diversity and composition of the gut flora, even in cases of short-term use. This can have harmful effects on gut bacteria that may last for as long as two years.
Lack of Regular Physical Activity
Physical activity is simply defined as any movement of the body that burns energy.
Walking, gardening, swimming and cycling are all examples of physical activity.
One study found that professional rugby players had a more diverse gut flora and twice the number of bacterial families, compared to the control groups matched for body size, age and gender (50).
Similar results have been reported in women.
A study compared the gut flora of 19 physically active women to 21 non-active women (52).
Active women had a higher abundance of health-promoting bacteria, including Bifidobacterium and Akkermansia, suggesting that regular physical activity, even at low-to-moderate intensities, can be beneficial.
Summary: Regular physical activity promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, including Bifidobacterium and Akkermansia. These positive effects are not seen in individuals who are inactive.
Tobacco smoke is made up of thousands of chemicals, 70 of which can cause cancer (53).
Smoking causes harm to nearly every organ in the body and raises the risk of heart disease, stroke and lung cancer (54).
Cigarette smoking is also one of the most important environmental risk factors for inflammatory bowel disease, a disease characterized by ongoing inflammation of the digestive tract (55).
Furthermore, smokers are twice as likely to have Crohn's disease, a common type of inflammatory bowel disease, compared to non-smokers (56).
In one study, smoking cessation increased gut flora diversity, which is a marker of a healthy gut (57).
Summary: Smoking has detrimental effects on nearly even organ in the body. Giving up smoking can improve gut health by increasing the diversity of the gut flora, and this can occur after only nine weeks.
Not Getting Enough Sleep
Getting good sleep is very important for overall health.
Sleep is so important that your body has its own time-keeping clock, known as your circadian rhythm (61).
It appears that the gut also follows a daily circadian-like rhythm. Disrupting your body clock through a lack of sleep, shift work and eating late at night may have harmful effects on your gut bacteria (64, 65, 66).
A 2016 study was the first to explore the effects of short-term sleep deprivation on the composition of gut flora (67).
The study compared the effects of two nights of sleep deprivation (about 4 hours per night) versus two nights of normal sleep duration (8.5 hours) in nine men.
Nevertheless, sleep deprivation's effects on gut bacteria is a new area of research. Further studies are required to determine the impact of sleep loss and poor sleep quality on gut health.
Summary: The body has a 24-hour internal clock called the circadian rhythm. Sleep deprivation can disrupt the circadian rhythm, and this appears to have harmful effects on gut bacteria.
Too Much Stress
Being healthy isn't only about diet, physical activity and adequate sleep.
High stress levels can also have harmful effects on the body. In the gut, stress can increase sensitivity, reduce blood flow and alter the gut bacteria (69).
Stress exposure in mice also affects bacterial populations, causing an increase in potentially harmful bacteria like Clostridium and reducing beneficial populations of bacteria like Lactobacillus (73, 74).
One study in humans looked at the effect of stress on the composition of gut bacteria in 23 college students (75).
The composition of gut bacteria was analyzed at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester during final examinations.
The high stress associated with final exams caused a reduction in friendly bacteria, including Lactobacilli.
While promising, research on the relationship between stress and gut flora is fairly new, and human studies are currently limited.
Summary: Excess stress has been shown reduce gut flora diversity and alter gut flora profiles by increasing harmful bacteria like Clostridium and reducing beneficial bacteria like Lactobacilli.
How to Improve Gut Health
A healthy gut flora that's high in friendly bacteria is essential for overall health.
Here are some tips on how to improve your gut flora:
- Eat more prebiotic foods: Eat plenty of foods rich in prebiotic fibers, such as legumes, onions, asparagus, oats, bananas and others.
- Consume more probiotics: Probiotics may increase the abundance of healthy gut bacteria. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, kefir and tempeh, are all excellent sources. You could also start taking a probiotic supplement.
- Make time for quality sleep: To improve sleep quality, try cutting out caffeine late in the day, sleeping in complete darkness and making a structured sleep routine so that you go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.
- Reduce stress: Regular exercise, meditation and deep breathing exercises may help reduce your stress levels. If you regularly feel overwhelmed with stress, you may want to consider seeing a psychologist.
- Eat foods rich in polyphenols: Good sources include blueberries, red wine, dark chocolate and green tea. Polyphenols are not digested very efficiently and often make their way to the colon, where they are digested by bacteria.
Summary: There are many ways to improve your gut health. Eating a healthy and diverse diet, getting good sleep and reducing stress levels are all great ways to help improve your gut flora.
The Bottom Line
Your gut bacteria play an important role in your overall health, and disruption to the gut flora has been linked to a number of health problems.
Diet and lifestyle factors, including poor sleep quality, alcohol consumption and inactivity, can harm your gut bacteria.
Alternatively, living a healthy lifestyle characterized by regular physical activity, low stress and a variety of whole foods is the best way to ensure a healthy gut flora.
In many cases, fermented foods and probiotic supplements may help as well.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>