Can you have better gut health with less bacteria? There’s an old saying in the integrative health world that ‘ Death begins in the colon.’ These were the words of the 1906 Nobel science award holder Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian scientist who did much to elaborate on the mechanisms of embryology, immunology and other aspects of health and disease. These days there’s much that has been written about the micro biome and the suggestion that diverse microbes within the bowel are an important factor in health. How we need to eat plenty of fibrous and fermented foods for better health. But how true is this and are more bacteria necessary for better digestion and longer life? “The retention of faecal matter for several days very often brings harmful consequences. Organisms which are in a feeble state from some cause are specially susceptible to damage of the kind referred to.” (Metchnikoff & Metchnikoff, 1908)
Ok so you aren’t likely to die anytime soon from being constipated for several days, you might feel like crap (excuse the pun). But what if the repetition of constipation is over years? We have seen that hypothyroidism and constipation is clearly linked and can induce small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (Lauritano et al., 2007). An inability to remove the waste products is a particular burden on a stressed system.
"Not only is there autointoxication from the microbial poisons absorbed in, cases of constipation but microbes themselves may pass through the walls of the intestines."
This description of endotoxin and other bacterial end products damaging and permeating the intestinal wall is a well-known modern concept of leaky gut or intestinal hyper permeability. Metchnikoff’s describes the putrefaction (think fermenting mass of stinky stuff) of foods within the bowel that lead to the damage described in a permeable gut lining that allows bacteria and endotoxin into the blood stream.
There’s a theory that I have, as it’s clear that not all people have constipation. Many present with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) like states, loose and perhaps a product of irritation induce by high serotonin and histamine (which by keeping to a minimum can also improve sleep and mood). It’s plausible to suggest that some people have already gone through a constipated phase induced by either a low energy or thyroid state, which may give way to a high adrenaline state over time. The lack of movement in the bowel for some can set the scene for future IBS reactions due to the accumulative damage induced by constipation, putrefaction, bacterial end products and increased irritation. Some clients have noticed that they previously went through a constipated phase before they arrived at their suggested IBS.
So if the current theme of recommending probiotics, raw and fermented foods is in vogue. What does that mean for the digestive system. I remember a newsletter from Ray Peat suggesting that animals born in a sterile environment generally live longer and have a higher metabolic rate. This in itself is a hard, near impossible feat to achieve outside of a sterile laboratory but consider this - Most babies are grown within a womb that does not contain any bacteria, as soon as they come through the birth canal and into the world at large. The bacterial management of life comes into play and had it come any sooner, may have had disastrous consequences. Other observations of Metchnikoff related to the longevity of birds, which have a high metabolic rate and limited intestinal flora -
‘Even in birds of pray which feed upon putrid flesh, the number of microbes in the intestine is remarkably limited. I have investigated the case of ravens which I fed flesh which was putrid and swarming with microbes. The droppings contained very few bacteria, and it was remarkable that the intestines had not the slightest smell of putrefaction. Although the opened body of a herbivorous mammal, such as a rabbit, gives off a strong smell of putrefaction, the body of a raven with its digestive tube exposed has no unpleasant smell. The absence of putrefaction in the intestine is probably the reason of the great longevity of such birds as parrots, ravens, and their allies.’
Metchnikoff also states that despite the absence of bacteria, their organisation and metabolism may be the primary driver for long health. Therefore if we were to keep bacterial interference at bay might we be better at living longer lives by improving our gut health? Our metabolism and cellular health is the key to prevention of many disease states. Extra bacteria may just be another factor that our immune system has to contend with and may be at the heart of autoimmune issues. From a comparative biology standpoint many other herbivorous animals don’t live as long as omnivorous animals. Horses, cows, and sheep live very short lives in comparison to other mammals that eat a wide range of foods. The main exception being the elephant, which has an extremely large intestine like other vertebrates.
Probiotics and fermented foods provide a mixed bag of research(Goldenberg et al., 2015). In many studies bacterial infections and digestive issues have not been resolved by probiotics. They do seem to be particularly effective at reducing bacterial/food poisoning cases and decreasing the diarrhoea like state by a day or two. Primarily this acts as a competing organism in the battle of the bowel and maybe why faecal implants have been shown to beneficial in the short term for some.. Even beneficial strains of bacteria such as lactobacillus can be problematic in excess due to the high levels of lactic acid leading to d-lactate acidosis, decreasing our gut health and overall wellbeing.
After all increased bacteria equals increased immune system responses and constant battles, for some there’s only so much that a faltering metabolism and immune system that one can take. Providing easily digested nutrients that limit bacterial growth and metabolites, that doesn’t burden a compromised digestive system seems prudent. In hypothyroidism gastric secretions such as hydrochloric acid are often lowered, further compromising digestion. Easily digested nutrients equals easily available source of energy and macronutrients.
To read more on how to combat these issues, to improve your gut health, digestion, mood and energy, this article is extended in the members’ area or there's also some information in this blog from 2017.
Goldenberg, J. Z., Lytvyn, L., Steurich, J., Parkin, P., Mahant, S., & Johnston, B. C. (2015). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Vol. 12). http://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004827.pub4
Lauritano, E. C., Bilotta, A. L., Gabrielli, M., Scarpellini, E., Lupascu, A., Laginestra, A., … Gasbarrini, A. (2007). Association between hypothyroidism and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 92(11), 4180–4184. http://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2007-0606
Metchnikoff, E., & Metchnikoff, I. I. (1908). The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies. Our post human future. Consequences of the biotechnology revolution. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=U8bgKGvZJV0C&pgis=1