Bacteria in gut is key for good health

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 28, 2013

Dr. Christopher Magryta explored the effects of diet and the environment on microflora in the gut Thursday at the Center for the Environment building on the Catawba College campus. He told the group that it could have a drastic impact on health.
Magryta, a physician at Salisbury Pediatrics, has a special interest in pediatric allergies, asthma and immunology. He posed a question to attendees Thursday: Why is the gut so important?
Composed of the small and large intestines, the gut has a surface area that covers 200 square meters — the largest of any organ. In addition, 70 percent of immune system function happens in the gut.
“Everything starts and ends in the gut,” Magryta said.
A healthy gut has a diverse population of helpful bacteria and microflora that promote health, digestion and immune function. When these populations become unbalanced or are composed of less beneficial microflora, disease shows up.
Studies have shown that the microflora that take hold in the gut at birth can have negative implications on a child’s future health. And drastic differences in those populations are produced if a child is born via C-section, instead of natural birth, or if they are fed baby formula instead of breast-fed. Experiments with mice also revealed that microflora can influence weight gain, metabolic function and even stress reaction.
While the bacteria one is exposed to can influence microflora, another thing that leads to poor gut health is diet. Certain types of bacteria flourish with certain kinds of food — and the standard American diet hits the jackpot for bad bacteria populations.
“Diet is just one piece of the puzzle, but it is a monstrous piece.” Magryta said.
When diet is poor, not only is there a drastic shift in microflora populations, but the intestinal lining can become damaged, as well. “Leaky gut,” as it’s known, occurs when the intestinal wall becomes permeable due to gaps where cells have died or joins between cells have loosened.
Foreign food particles are able to work their way through these gaps, which results in increased immune response and inflammation that is often expressed as food allergies. Alcohol abuse, antibiotics, and NSAIDs such as ibuprofen can also contribute to gut permeability.
But, aside from contributing to a leaky gut, why do diet and the environment have such a huge effect on our health? To put it simply, Magryta said, it comes down to genetics. While DNA is a static structure, the way our bodies read and interpret it is not. Environmental cues, nurture, stress and diet can determine which genes are activated and expressed and which are ignored.
“There is nothing static about our lives,” Magryta said.
The key, he said, is balance — finding a balance between a diet and a lifestyle that ensures a healthy gut, which promotes a healthy immune system and reduces disease. And the best way to restabilize a microflora population is through probiotics, or good bacteria. Probiotics can be taken as supplements or can be found naturally in fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut.
And after that?
“Get back to the basics,” Magryta said.
While there will always be conflicting evidence in the field of nutrition, Magryta encouraged audience members to think about what nature intended to comprise a human diet, and to cut out anything else.
“How much evidence do you need to know that we’re going in the wrong direction?” Magryta said.