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Fiona Lawson | 01 Dec 2018 | Dysbiosis

What is dysbiosis?

Lurking in our intestines are legions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, archaea and other microorganisms. Together, they weigh approximately 2kg—almost as much as a chihuahua [1].

But far from considering ourselves invaded, we should be grateful—as this little family of bugs does a lot for us. From synthesising vitamins to producing neurotransmitters, new research suggests they influence virtually every bodily process.

The old view was that some bacteria are ‘good’, while others are ‘bad’. We now know it’s important to have a balance of lots of different types (or strains) of bacteria. In that way, our guts could be regarded as a mini reflection of the world: there are lots of creatures in our ecosystem, and we have all evolved to live in harmony.

Have you ever heard the story about the wolves in Yellowstone Park? When the removed the wolves, it lead to a cascade of disharmony that ended up affecting everything down to the microbes in the soil. Only when they replaced the wolves did things go back to normal.

Our guts are no different. The greater the diversity, the better [2].

The definition of dysbiosis

Dysbiosis is simply a fancy word for imbalanced bacteria. Technically, you could have dysbiosis in any place that bacteria congregate: your mouth, skin, eyes, noses, intimate areas…However, for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on gut dysbiosis.

A person could be imbalanced because they have too much of one bacteria or yeast. Or they could be imbalanced because they don’t have enough bacteria.

Either way, the imbalance affects not only the health of the gut, but it can also impact the health of person as a whole.

What are the symptoms of gut dysbiosis?

Because the bacteria in your gut influence a host of bodily functions, symptoms of dysbiosis can show up in lots of different places. There are some which involve the digestive system:

  • Bad breath
  • Upset stomach
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation

…but then there are others that can seem totally random, such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Skin conditions
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Gut dysbiosis has also been implicated in several chronic conditions. That’s not to say it’s causing these conditions, but it may be one factor in their development. These include:

  • Diabetes [3]
  • IBS [4]
  • Obesity [5]
  • Neurological conditions [6]
  • Cancer [7]

As you can see, these symptoms and conditions are pretty wide-ranging, so how do you determine if dysbiosis is the problem?

How is gut dysbiosis diagnosed?

Technically, dysbiosis isn’t recognised as a medical condition, so it’s not possible to ‘diagnose’ it. However, in our opinion, it can be both valuable and necessary to peer into someone’s gut ecosystem to see what’s going on.

An older version of assessment involved culturing the bacteria. This means a person would provide a sample of their poop and lab technicians would harvest the bacteria from it. The technicians would then observe what grew in petri dish, allowing them to estimate which types of bacteria were in abundance.

 

an infographic about dysbiosis

 

This can provide insight, but it does have some pretty serious limitations—the main one being that not all bacteria can survive in oxygen. This means that what’s cultured in a petri dish isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of what exists in the oxygen-free intestines.

Newer techniques involve analysing the DNA of the bacteria, which isn’t affected by exposure to oxygen. This allows technicians to see which types (strains) of bacteria are present, how balanced they are, and if there are any pathogens or infections.

No test is perfect, but this method is the most comprehensive way of assessing gut bacteria to date [8]. The findings can then be cross-referenced with research into specific bacteria to assess how they’re contributing to a person’s health picture.

This technique is an integral part of our Gut health MOT test.

What causes gut dysbiosis?

The easiest way to think about this is in terms of balance. If your life is imbalanced in any way, there’s a good chance this will be reflected in your gut microbiome.

More specifically, here are some behaviours, substances or situations that can contribute to dysbiosis [9]:

  • A high-fat, low-fibre diet
  • Broad-spectrum antibiotics
  • The oral contraceptive pill
  • Excess alcohol
  • Excess exposure to chemicals
  • Parasitic infection
  • Chronic bad digestion
  • Chronic constipation
  • Stress

Most of us can relate to one of more of those factors, and its therefore common for people to have some degree of gut dysbiosis.

How to treat dysbiosis

There’s no one set way to tackle dysbiosis. The approach varies depending on the severity of a person’s symptoms, and thus their degree of imbalance.

A key tenet of Functional Medicine is lightening the load on a person’s body so it can recalibrate naturally. This may involve taking some things away, and adding other things back in.

When it comes to gut dysbiosis, we want to take away anything that fuels imbalance. This includes:

  • Excess sugar and refined carbohydrates
  • Excess alcohol
  • Unnecessary exposure to chemicals (in cosmetics, cleaning products etc.)
  • Stress-generating habits or behaviours

Obviously a person shouldn’t stop any medications without first consulting their doctor.

It’s just as important to add things to help bacteria flourish and find balance. These include food-based prebiotics, probiotics and supplements, such as:

  • A wide variety of colourful fruits and vegetables
  • Fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir
  • Prebiotic fibres: FOS, GOS and lactulose
  • Probiotic capsules

If a person has the type of dysbiosis that means they’ve got too much of a certain bacteria, or that it’s in the wrong place (as with SIBO), they may also need to use some anti-microbial herbs. This is effectively like weeding before re-sowing the good stuff.

Studies show that our gut bacteria populations can shift within 24 hours of making a dietary change [10]. It can take time and patience to truly overhaul dysbiosis but, with the right interventions, people can expect to notice a difference within a matter of weeks.

Want to learn more? Take a look at our Gut Health Test.

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