Doctors and scientists have been touting the benefits of introducing more healthy bacteria into your gut flora for the past several decades.
If you’re like most people, you associate bacteria with, well bad. After all, there are bacterial connections to a staggering number of diseases and ailments including:
- Autoimmune Disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
- And the list goes on.
As Hippocrates once said ‘All disease begins in the gut.’
However, you may be surprised to learn that there are good bacteria throughout your body as well. The balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ has to be nearly perfect for your body to function properly.
Nearly 75% of our immune system activity is done through our gut and digestive tract. With enough beneficial bacteria in your gut, every aspect of your body will thank you. Your metabolism, hormonal levels, your mood and even your bone health, can be affected by your gut flora.
Is there such a thing as too much friendly bacteria?
One field study on the Hadza hunter-gatherer tribe in East Africa was done to determine how microbes within our bodies react to severe diet changes. Interestingly, Jeff Leach and his team of collaborators suggest that there might not be one magic number of microbes in the human gut.
Instead, it’s more likely that the perfect microbiome may not only vary from person to person but can change within a single person as well. Essentially, your gut microbe is an ever-changing target with multiple steady states.
So, how do we figure out what the perfect formula is?
We’ll get into that shortly. But first, let’s learn a little more about what your gut microbiome is and how it affects your overall health, including your bones.
What is the Gut Microbiome?
Along with our genes, lifestyles, and experiences, our gut microbiomes help shape who we are. A healthy human harbors approximately 1,000 unique types of bacteria in their gut. Those 1,000 distinct bacterial strains make up between 10-100 trillion individual microbial cells throughout your body.
Your gut microbiome is what houses these various microbial cells which make each person’s microbiome as unique as a fingerprint.
Microbes are an essential part of each of us and tell a story about our past, present, and yes, even our future. Your gut microbiome can be a key factor in whether you are prone to a certain illness and how well you’ll recover from it.
The body’s microbiome affects just about every normal physiologic function either directly or indirectly including;
- Contributing to digestion and metabolic functions.
- Protection against dangerous pathogens.
- Educating the immune system.
Having a healthy and balanced gut flora balance can help you digest foods and metabolize important nutrients that protect your overall well-being. Everything from your mood to healthy bones is affected by this metabolic process.
Note: Gut flora is the original term for the bacteria in your gut. However, terms like microbiome and microbiota are also used.
How Does The Gut Microbiome Affect Your Body?
It turns out your gut microbiome may be determined throughout the earliest years of your life.
One Swedish study was done to determine the difference between babies microbiota that were born vaginally versus babies that were born via C-section. Children that were born vaginally had much closer microbiomes to their respective mothers. This could explain why vaginally born babies tend to be a little healthier (fewer allergies, asthma, eczema, and even obesity).
Our bodies begin to form its own unique gut microbiome almost immediately after being born and possibly even in the womb. By the age of two, our gut microbiome is already close to that of an adult.
That’s pretty interesting stuff.
Scientists and researchers have known for a while how paramount our gut microbiome is to human health.
Nearly 60-70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases. While more research needs to be done, a healthier gut microbiome earlier on in our lives may put us at less of a risk for some of these common health issues like:
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Celiac Disease
As you age and your body develops, your gut microbiome changes as well. Your gut flora is ever-changing and can be affected by what we eat.
Many healthcare providers will suggest dietary or pharmaceutical prebiotic and probiotic interventions for those suffering from the above health issues, among others.
Good bacteria in your gut microbiome works in several ways to keep your body happy, healthy, and active.
- Aids in digestion: When you digest your food properly you’re able to metabolize and absorb the nutrients you consume better so you can get the most out of your food resulting in a healthier well-being.
- Fight bad bacteria: Good bacteria can ward off bad bacteria that could potentially make you sick by preventing pathogens from increasing in too great a number.
Gut microbiome manipulation can lead to novel therapeutic approaches for a number of health issues ranging from digestive problems to bone-health issues.
The Gut Microbiome May Affect…
We’ve discussed how your gut microbiome has a direct or indirect effect on just about every part of your bodily functions. Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the interesting ways good and bad gut bacteria may affect your overall well-being.
- Weight: One long-term 9-year study reported lean people had a larger number of good microbes throughout their bodies than obese people. This may be due to good bacteria’s ability to increase metabolism by breaking down carbs and sugars and converting them into energy rather than storing them for future use as fat.
- Digestion of Food: Some evidence suggests large quantities of bifidobacteria found throughout infant gut and intestines play an important role in the digestion of sugars in milk. But, good bacteria doesn’t just help babies, they can help us all. Certain bacterias aid in the digestion of prebiotic fiber that can, in turn, prevent weight gain, reduce the risk of cancer and fight off other diseases.
- Immune System: An imbalance of microbiota within your gut can cause numerous immune-related diseases from inflammatory to metabolic and even neurodegenerative problems. Researchers believe that with continued research they may be able to correct or prevent these problems with targeted microbiome therapies. The future is looking exciting!
- Central Nervous System: You may not realize it, but your gut microbiota greatly influences brain function by way of the gut-brain axis (GBA). Both cognitive and emotional health has been linked to intestinal function.
When we talked about your gut flora affecting every bodily function, we meant it.
Recent research shows that your gut microbiome may also influence another important part of your body… your bones.
Do you have or are you genetically prone to bone health issues such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis? If so, it might be time to add dietary or pharmaceutical probiotic supplementation into your daily routine according to the latest research.
The Gut Microbiota – The New Frontier for Bone Health?
Probiotics can be traced to nearly 10,000 years ago. Long before they were named our ancient ancestors were using foods such as beer, cheese, wine, and kefir, for nutritional and therapeutic purposes.
Over the past 10 years, however, our understanding of associations between the gut microbiome and our health has expanded greatly. We’re now aware of how important a role our gut flora plays in a broad range of conditions, some of which are listed below.
- Autoimmune Conditions
- Mental Illness
- Vascular Disease
Now, researchers are focusing on another problem nearly 10-million Americans suffer from a bone disease. Until recently it was difficult to explore the relationship the gut microbiome has on our health. With new molecular biology tools, things are looking up.
Although it’s a little early to tell if taking a few probiotics is the cure-all for bone diseases, the newest research is showing some promising results.
Several animal studies and one year-long human trial suggest a positive effect of probiotics on both bone metabolism and bone mass density. Postmenopausal women were able to reduce bone loss within just one year with calcium and probiotic supplementation.
Altering your gut microbiota with increased good bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are thought to work in a few different ways to improve bone health.
- Increased mineral solubility through short-chain fatty acids.
- Production of phytase enzyme which binds and charges certain minerals such as phosphate, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
- Reduced inflammation throughout the gut and intestines.
All of these factors contribute to a better bioavailability of minerals for an overall healthy body and happy bones.
Mechanisms of Gut Microbiota on Bone Health
The exact influence our gut flora has on our bone health is still somewhat misunderstood. Thanks to new molecular software, many researchers are getting on the ground floor when it comes to the gut-bone connection. The ultimate goal is to determine how our bone health can be modulated by our diet.
Early studies have shown that certain bacteria can potentially reduce the risk of osteoporosis. As promising as that is, further validation is needed.
There’s still a great deal to learn about how the gut microbiome works to aid bone health. Right now, there are a couple theories on how the gut influences bone specifically.
Theory # 1 – Prebiotic Fiber: Many prebiotic fibers that can be found in everyday foods help maintain a healthy gut by feeding the friendly bacteria that are already there. That’s right; dietary fibers act as a fertilizer for the probiotics that live in your gut (bifidobacteria in particular). Examples of prebiotic fibers we commonly eat are artichokes, dandelion greens, asparagus, and banana.
Theory # 2 – Immune System: We already know your gut protects your immune system. But, what does your immune system have to do with bones? Your immune system is responsible for regulating cytokines which play an important role in bone turnover (ie- bone resorption and formation).
Although more research needs to be done, we do know changes in our gut microbiome affect aspects of our daily lives. A healthy gut can reduce inflammation and aid in nutrient absorption including magnesium, vitamin D, and calcium… which are all great for your bones.
A Healthy Gut Microbiota Enhances Calcium Absorption (+ Other Minerals)
As we’ve discussed, your gut microbiota has a hand in just about every aspect of your normal bodily function. However, it’s important to note how significant a role it plays in harvesting, storing, and the absorption of nutrients.
Let’s take a closer look at what bone-healthy nutrients your gut microbiota is responsible for.
- Calcium: Anyone who’s anyone knows calcium is paramount to healthy bones. Prebiotics have been shown to increase calcium-binding protein uptake. These calcium-binding proteins are critical for intracellular calcium functions, such as cell growth, cell differentiation, and transcription.
- Magnesium: Magnesium might be a lesser-known bone-health mineral but it’s almost as important as calcium. Pairing magnesium with a calcium-rich diet can preserve bone structure by drawing calcium out of the bloodstream and soft tissue and replacing back into your bones.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D also acts as an absorbing agent for calcium. Introducing vitamin D (which is actually a hormone and not a vitamin) into your system can get your gut microbiome to bone-healthy standards.
Whether you introduce good bacteria into your body through your dietary or supplementation, it could be beneficial to your bone health. Alterations that enhance nutrients like vitamin D, magnesium, and calcium are an attractive strategy to reduce the risk of bone diseases such as osteoporosis.
The Gut Bone Connection
So, what’s the connection between your gut and bones?
Intestinal inflammation can cause osteoporosis in extreme cases such as inflammatory bowel disease. Studies are currently underway to test the effects of probiotics to treat such diseases due to their anti-inflammatory properties.
Inflammation can also destroy your healthy gut flora, tissue, and organs.
Specifically, inflammation sets off the production of a whole bunch of inflammatory molecules—one of which is osteoclasts (the cells that dissolve bone).
Ultimately, what you need to know is that anything that promotes chronic inflammation also promotes bone loss. And when your gut is in an unhealthy and inflamed state, it affects your bone-health negatively.
Additionally, inflammation can inhibit absorption of important bone-building minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
So, what can you do to combat inflammation in your gut and improve your gut microbiome balance?
7 Ways to Improve Your Gut Microbiome
Your gut microbiome is in a constant transitional state. In 2008, the National Institute of Health launched a 5-year initiative called the Human Microbiome Project. The goal was to learn more about the role our gut microbiome plays throughout our body.
While they haven’t yet completely unlocked the mysteries of how your gut microbiome works, it’s clear a healthy gut flora equals optimal overall health.
Let’s take a look at several ways that you can keep your gut microbiome where it needs to be for a healthy immune system, healthy metabolism, and healthy bones.
You might be surprised to learn stress affects the balance of bacteria in your gut. One study done by The Ohio State University showed people with higher stress levels had not only a less diverse microbiome but had a greater number of potentially harmful bacteria as well.
Various studies have been done to test the correlation between exercise and immune system health, with very positive results. Not to mention, exercise is a great stress reliever as well. Researchers have found that mice that exercise have a different microbiota composition compared to sedentary mice. In fact, fit mice have higher amounts of lactobacillus bacteria. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals, have anti-inflammatory effects and is protective of the immune system. Further studies have shown that rats that exercise have a higher bacterial diversity than sedentary rats, confirming preliminary research.
While it’s still early days and the research is limited on exercise and gut health, there appears to be a strong and beneficial link that being active can positively change your gut microbiota.
Avoid Antibiotics (Whenever Possible)
Did you know that taking antibiotics for only one week can change the makeup of your gut for up to one year!
Antibiotics are designed to kill harmful bacteria within your body. However, they can also hurt the good bacteria present and adversely alter your gut microbiome. There is mounting evidence that pharmaceutical drugs (both over-the-counter and prescription) lead to changes in microbial community structures. Your antibiotic or daily headache medicine might be doing you more harm than good.
If you do find yourself taking antibiotics, there are things to consider, like the foods you should and shouldn’t eat before and after taking a prescription. For instance, you should take probiotics during and after an antibiotic treatment as they may help to reduce antibiotic-associated diarrhea and help restore some healthy bacteria. This can be done by eating fermented foods or taking supplements (both discussed below). Eating prebiotic fiber-rich foods after an antibiotic treatment will also help stimulate healthy gut bacteria. Foods like beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains, and artichokes.
Prebiotics and probiotics are evolving treatment options for restoring healthy digestive flora. There is emerging research for these therapies in treatment of diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea and certain digestive infections. Prebiotics help feed the friendly bacteria within your gut and also work to combat the free radical damage that can hurt your gut. Probiotics, in particular, have been shown to aid in everything from better digestion to the prevention of osteoporosis.
Eat Diverse Foods
If you want a diverse microbial ecosystem, it only makes sense to eat a variety of foods. People who consume a Standard American Diet (typically high in fat and simple carbs) were shown to have a less diverse gut microbiome than those that consumed a more traditional diet. Our microbiomes are as unique as our personalities. They vary from person to person. Everything from diet to environment and genetics can play a role in how diverse your microbiota is. It might be time to cut down on the burgers and fries and add some Pad Thai into your routine.
Eat Fermented Foods
Fermented foods such as kimchi, natto, kefir, and yogurt are great sources of probiotic nutrition (learn more about these yummy foods in one of our future Gut-Health Mini-Series posts). A controlled study in both humans and mice was done to determine the outcome functional foods had on the microbiome. It showed foods with probiotic qualities like fermented goodies changed the microbiome significantly. There was a greater presence of a beneficial bacteria strain lactobacilli which is primarily associated with carbohydrate metabolism.
Reduce Artificial Sweeteners
Aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, and sorbitol are common artificial sweeteners. These sugar replacements may seem like a good idea but they are doing more harm than good. Studies on mice have been conducted showing that sugar substitutes, like aspartame, influence gut microbial composition. In addition, researchers were concerned to find that after just 8-weeks of consuming aspartame, elevated glucose levels were seen even though the mice consumed fewer calories and gained less weight. When your glucose (blood sugar) levels are consistently high it can damage your cells and lead to other health issues like diabetes.
Although these sweetener additives can be found in many foods, data reported an increase of bad bacteria within the gut microbiome linked to metabolic diseases.You may want to steer clear of alternative sweeteners if you have high blood pressure or a weak immune system. Try natural sweeteners in moderation like raw honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar.
Minor alterations in your daily routine could enhance the function of your gut microbiome. Reduce disease-causing bacteria through simple lifestyle changes and increase the good bacteria in your gut through easy dietary changes.
Nutrient Support For Bones
Maintaining strong and healthy bones involves two key aspects: exercise and nutrition.
As we’ve learned, a healthy gut plays a big role in our bone health by increasing immune function, reducing inflammation and ensuring the absorption of bone-building minerals remain intact.
To do this you need to supply your body with those bone-building minerals. Adding a healthy combination of nutrients like calcium, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin K2, boron and certain trace minerals to your diet can effectively improve your bone health.
However, finding the right balance of all of these nutrients in your daily diet is sometimes easier said than done. If you’re like me, you barely have time to balance work, family, and social engagements.
Stay Tuned For More on Gut Health
While the scientific data is somewhat new, research is constantly advancing. We here at AlgaeCal are excited to see where the latest research on gut microbiota takes us in the future. As always, we’ll keep you up-to-date on this promising information.
Want to get to know your personal gut microbiome? Now, you can. Thanks to the American Gut Project (a crowdfunded research study) enrollees can find out their unique gut microbiota without even leaving their home for only $99 USD. Simply mail your kit in and wait for a team from the University of California to extract your DNA and map what types of bacteria are in your gut and how many of each. Pretty cool!
**We are no way affiliated with the American Gut Project, but wanted to share it for those who are interested.
Don’t forget to stay tuned for the next article in our Gut Mini-Series on the Ultimate Guide to Prebiotics and Probiotics. Trust us, you don’t want to miss this one!
Have a healthy gut tip or question? Leave a comment below. Tell us what you found most interesting about the connection between your gut flora and your bone health.