There’s no question that gut health has a direct impact on overall health, including everything from the strength of our immune systems to the condition of our skin. But now a scientific study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, conducted in mice has shown that a diet low in natural fiber not only causes certain healthy bacteria to die off, it also causes starved gut microbes to eat the soft mucosal lining of the intestinal tract. This not only negatively impacts gut health since the mucosal barrier becomes weakened, but, as the study indicates, the loss of these species of bacteria is permanent and carries forward to next generations of offspring.
Gut microbes rely on fiber as their natural food source, and when they don’t get it, some turn to the lining of the gut for sustenance, eroding it and leaving it prone to infection. This happens because as the microbes dine on the protective mucus along the digestive tract, the lining thins and becomes patchy, allowing bad bacteria, such as E. coli, to penetrate it and pass through to cells in the colon. The resulting gut infections can cause diarrhea, inflammation, irritation and other uncomfortable symptoms. In a healthy gut, the mucus layer is thick and can help to prevent infections from settling in.
Less adventurous microbes starve to death. The loss of these microbes is irreversible and the study found that these important bacterial species are also missing in subsequent offspring and going extinct. Much like genetic heritage, the main source of intestinal bacteria is passed down from parents to their children. Each generation after those with depleted microbiomes showed less bacterial diversity than the one before it; by the fourth generation, only twenty-five percent of the original bacterial species existed – a full seventy-five percent were gone forever. Besides thinning the lining of the colon, low bacterial diversity has been shown in humans to relate to increasingly common chronic conditions such as asthma, obesity, diabetes and allergies.
Diets that rely heavily on processed and prepared foods, white bread, white rice and refined cereals, among other such things, including soda and junk foods, don’t provide the fiber necessary for microbial communities to thrive. You can feed those all-important microbes the nutrients they need while keeping your overall digestive tract healthy by including a variety of natural fiber-rich foods (organic is preferable) in your diet. Think of whole foods such as raspberries, apples and pears with their skin, flax seeds, brown rice, certain beans, almonds, pecans, carrots, broccoli and so forth.
Additional studies are being planned to determine whether low fiber diets also contribute to other chronic gut problems like inflammatory bowel disease (IBS). It’s almost certain that they do. Bacterial colonies in the gut have been under fire for a number of years as a result of the use and/or overuse of antibiotics, NSAIDs, antacids, aspirin, laxatives, pesticides, chlorinated water, some medical procedures – the list goes on. By supplementing the microbiome with probiotics and fermented foods as well as following a diet high in natural fiber-rich foods, we can keep our gut bacteria healthy and plentiful.