Healthy Hormones Depend on a Healthy Gut
By Andrea Vannelli
Taking care of the gut truly is a pillar of good health. The gut microbiota is a major aspect of our internal ecosystem, and it seems the more we learn about this complex consortium of microbes, the more we understand just how intricately it is related to myriad important health factors. The human GI tract is populated by a dynamic community made up of 38 trillion or so microbes. Its density and composition is chiefly influenced by diet, although many other internal and external aspects play a role, including environmental factors, illness, metabolic type, age and gender. We rely on a healthy balance of these friendly microbes to digest nutrients, metabolize drugs, protect against pathogens, modulate the immune system, maintain a healthy mucosal barrier on the gut lining and integrate with the body’s signaling systems to regulate inflammation and sex hormones. Clearly, the microbiome is designed to do a lot of heavy lifting toward the maintenance of good health!
Studies show that the structure of the gut community will shift depending on dietary habits. For example, individuals who consume larger proportions of animal-based foods will have a microbiota with an abundance of bile-tolerant microorganisms, and those who favor plants will have a higher percentage of those that metabolize polysaccharides. In general, balance is key to staying adaptable, and eating a variety of macro and micro-nutrient profiles will support that. Overall, large fiber content is associated with beneficial microbiome profiles. These fermentable dietary fibers feed the friendly microbes that produce short-chain fatty acids and other beneficial metabolites that improve gut health and reduce systemic inflammation.
The gut microbiota also profoundly influences brain health, development and function. Probiotics commonly found in cultured dairy, fermented soy and lactic-acid pickled products are known to increase the neuro-protein BDNF, which is critical for the growth, strength and function of brain cells.
The microbiota is so intricately involved in female reproductive health throughout a woman’s lifetime that it is considered an endocrine organ. Estrogen and testosterone have been shown to directly affect the gut microbiome and immune cells that regulate inflammatory factors. The microbiome, therefore, affects all stages of female reproduction, including follicle development, egg quality, implantation and pregnancy. The gut’s interaction with key reproductive hormones is a two-way form of communication, with hormones influencing the gut microbiome and vice versa. Synthetic estrogen hormones that are used for common birth control and IVF procedures can wreak havoc on the gut microbiome, particularly over periods of long-term use (as is typical with birth control) and in high doses (as with many IVF protocols). Persistent gut dysbiosis is not just a localized GI problem; it can and often does lead to inflammation of the endometrial lining, and is implicated in disorders such as endometriosis, PCOS, pregnancy complications and cancer. An imbalanced gut contributes to systemic inflammation, which is an underlying factor for most chronic diseases.
Probiotic and/or prebiotic supplements can be somewhat helpful and will often ease symptoms but typically this is not enough, and in some cases can make matters worse.
Here are things you can do to help maintain a healthy gut microbiome:
- Eat a variety of fresh organic fruit, vegetables and legumes: these contain prebiotic fiber and polyphenols that feed friendly microbes in a healthy system. Fiber is key for both microbe health and gut detox. (Note that if some high-inulin foods create bloating or digestive discomfort, you may need to instead start with some deeper, targeted groundwork on balancing your microbiome.)
- Ditch the processed sugars, which can shift the balance in favor of unfriendly microbes.
- Avoid gut disruptors and other things that will harm your microbiome and your gut lining, including processed foods, artificial sweeteners, pesticides and environmental chemicals including cleaning products or artificial fragrances.
- Be discriminating with the use of antibiotics and antacids, which have a direct and harshly negative impact on the gut flora which can take a long time to recover from. Likewise, environmental toxins such as pesticides also take a toll on the gut over time, even in small doses, so try to avoid these and eat organic and non-GMO wherever possible.
- Consume quality probiotics or small amounts of fermented probiotic foods on a regular basis.
- Breastfeed for at least several months, if you can. An infant’s gut is fertile ground for new influences, so help your baby establish a foundation for gut resiliency. Studies show that breastfeeding is associated with lower rates of allergies, obesity and other gut-related conditions.
- Manage stress. The vagus nerve—which is the main component of the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” nervous system—innervates the entire intestinal tract. Stress interferes with the digestive process on muscular, hormonal and cellular levels and is associated with an altered microbiome. Find the grounding and relaxing practices that work for you and make them a habit. Something as simple as a minute of calm, diaphragmatic breathing before meals is a great strategy for improved digestion.
- Exercise regularly: physically active people tend to have microbiomes that are healthier and more diverse. This is also a great way to reduce stress.
- Get 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night. Irregular, short, and disturbed sleep has been shown to negatively impact gut flora and increase the risk of inflammatory factors.
- Refrain from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Studies show these increase the potential for harmful gut microorganisms.
Overall, look after your gut, and it will look out for you.
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