Are your sugar cravings impossible to ignore? Is bloating, gas and foggy thinking part of your every day? If so, your “bad” bacteria may be calling the shots!
The field of microbiome research has exploded recently. Every day new studies are revealing how the various colonies of gut bacteria and yeasts influence every major system and process in the body, and a sweet tooth may be part of that picture.
Research tells us that a diet high in sugar changes the makeup of the microbiome, helping bad bacteria thrive, suppressing good bacteria, and creating an imbalance that wreaks havoc on your digestive system.
With trillions of bacteria and yeasts representing hundreds of species in our gut, this microbial community is more influential than we think. Like any diverse community, there are great differences between members. Different species like different foods, have different jobs, and perhaps view life differently.
In a healthy, balanced microbiome the various strains of yeasts and bacteria can co-exist happily. But unhealthy microbes, which often feed on sugar, can quickly overwhelm the friendly strains in your gut. Just as a pregnant woman is ‘eating for two’, every day we are ‘eating for trillions’. When sugar supplies in your gut are running low these bad strains send signals for you to ‘crave’ something sweet.
Ask anyone who has experienced an overgrowth of Candida yeast in their gut, and they will tell you that the sugar cravings are powerful and sneaky. They can influence your thoughts and decision-making strategies, manipulating you into eating sugar.
Many healthy whole foods, especially fruit, are high in natural sugars and can exacerbate an imbalance, but the most damaging sugar is sucrose – plain old table sugar. Sucrose is a combination of fructose and glucose, and research shows that this combination changes the microbiome the most.
If left untreated, an overgrowth of unfriendly microbes can irritate the intestinal wall until it starts to break down, with yeasts such as candida taking the opportunity to bore holes in the soft mucosal lining - this is known as Leaky Gut Syndrome. Entire protein molecules, bacteria and food particles may escape from the intestinal tract directly into the bloodstream, undigested.
Once in the blood, these undigested molecules are sometimes seen as foreign invaders, causing what should be a normal, healthy inflammatory response to go out of control, potentially leading to a host of issues from sensitivities to allergies and even autoimmune conditions.
When your immune system is working overtime and inflammation becomes chronic throughout your body, the stage is set for autoimmunity. Many studies have shown that increased sugar consumption increases the risk of developing autoimmune diseases, as well as increasing flare-ups of existing issues such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), Crohn’s disease and fibromyalgia.
Food sensitivities are often considered early evidence of potential autoimmune issues. Remember that overactive immune system? If it identifies food as a foreign invader, it won’t just try to fight it off. It will ‘remember’ the food and create antibodies against it. Next time you have this food your body will put its defense system into action, and you may experience bloating, gas, abdominal pain, rashes, and other symptoms. Before you know it, you could develop sensitivities to foods you’ve been eating all your life.
Recent studies show that depressed individuals have a less diverse microbiome with fewer species of bacteria. Some bacterial species found in healthy individuals can be missing entirely, while other bad bacteria is found in much higher numbers.
Did you know that gut bacteria make many of the neurotransmitters that affect mood? The majority of our natural supplies of GABA (gamma-amino butyrate), norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine are made in the gut - this is why the gut is often referred to as the “second brain”. When those good bacteria aren’t functioning well, or have been wiped out altogether it can have a significant effect on moods and feelings of depression.
As socially acceptable as it may be, sugar is both a microbiome-damaging toxin and an addictive drug. Here’s what you can do to release yourself from sugar’s grip and bring back balance:
When a strong sugar craving hits, trying to ignore it will only get you so far. Take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself: is this my craving? Or are the bad microbes manipulating me to get their own sugar fix? When you reduce your sugar intake, these microbes go into starvation mode and up the ante. Your sugar cravings become more powerful, and you may find you’re ‘talking yourself into’ getting that
chocolate bar or pastry. Realizing that the microbes are only using you to be fed is a good first step is regaining control over your eating habits.
Perhaps you crave sugar under specific circumstances. Think about the last time you had a sugary treat. Were you feeling stressed? Fatigued? Depressed? Anxious? Knowing your own sugar triggers will help you ride out that craving when it arrives. Bringing conscious attention to your cravings is a powerful way to lessen their power over you.
The best rule of thumb is to eat more real food, and incorporate more plants into your diet. Prebiotics from plants are what our microbiome was built to eat!
Unlike probiotics, which are themselves beneficial microbial community members, prebiotics are complex carbohydrates that these microbes love to eat. In fact, the reason that many foods are ‘good for us’ is actually because they’re good for beneficial microbes. A well-fed microbe is a happy, active microbe that will keep the bad bacteria at bay and your microbiome healthy and thriving.
When your microbiome is unbalanced, adding more healthy bacteria can help to temporarily crowd out the bad bacteria, giving your friendly strains a chance to thrive. The easiest way to do this is regularly eating fermented foods which are rich in a variety of strains of soothing, helpful bacteria.
It’s important to note that prebiotics cause bloating and irritation in some individuals, especially if you suffer from SIBO or IBS. If you increase your veggie intake and the bloating continues to make your life a misery, be sure to contact your health practitioner for testing and the right support.
While increasing the foods that help feed and nurture the good bacteria and yeasts in your microbiome is important, reducing the foods that feed bad bacteria is just as much a part of the big picture. Removing hidden and not-so-hidden sources of sugar can pave the road to success when it comes to easing your digestive troubles.
Eating isn’t the best time to multitask. If you’re watching TV or scrolling through your social media feed during meals, research shows that you’re likely to be eating faster, chewing less and eating more food that you would otherwise.
At your next meal, try putting the phone away and keeping the TV off. Consciously chew every bite thoroughly before swallowing, and really taste the flavours. Not only will this result in better digestion, you will naturally eat less and enjoy your meal more. And don’t miss out on one of the great joys of life - catching up with friends and family over a good meal.
If stress has you in frequent “fight or flight” mode at mealtime, you won't digest your food very well. In this mode your body’s resources are focussed on either fighting an attacker or running away from them.
Resources are actively removed from digestive function to focus on these tasks. So if you sit down to dinner feeling stressed about something you read in the news or a work assignment that’s due tomorrow, you won’t be able to extract or absorb many nutrients from your meal. The opposite of the fight or flight mode (‘rest and digest’ mode) is the goal. Before you sit down to any meal, try some deep breathing to calm you down.
Often eliminating sugar and processed foods can make a big different in our digestive health. If however, despite making healthy changes you are still experiencing digestive issues, auto-immune conditions, hormonal imbalances and energy loss, it might make sense to test your stool. The test I run most often is the GI MAP DNA stool analysis test. This test tells you if you have any parasites, worms, yeast, opportunistic bacterial overgrowth and viruses. It also tells you how your normal bacteria is doing and how well you digest your food by giving us an indication of your enzymatic/pancreatic activity, liver/gallbladder activity based on the presence of fat in your stool, inflammatory and leaky gut marker just to name a few. I find that having this information allows for a more customized and targeted treatment approach.
Let’s work together to kick the sugar habit for good! If you want to delve deeper and find out what’s really going on in your microbial community, we can run a range of tests from stool analysis to food sensitivity, leaky gut and more and guide you through a healing plan that’s uniquely tailored to you. Book online today
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