By Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP
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.
Why Is Sugar Bad for Your Microbiome?
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.
A Balanced Microbiome
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.
Candida & Cravings
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.
The Worst Dietary Sugars For Your Gut
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.
4 Ways an Unbalanced Microbiome Can Affect Your Health
1 – Leaky Gut Syndrome
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.
2 – 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.
3 – Food Sensitivities
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.
4 – Depression & Low Mood
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 are 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.
How to Bring a Sugar-Influenced Microbiome Back into Balance
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:
Fight Back Against Sugar Cravings
Say No to Your Little Friends
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.
Identify Sugar Triggers
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.
Feed Your Healthy Gut Bacteria
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.
The Best Prebiotic Foods
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Bone broth
Add Probiotic Foods To Your Diet
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.
The Best Probiotic Foods
- Yoghurt (read the label to ensure it contains good bacteria as not all do)
- Lacto-Fermented Pickles (Not those made with vinegar)
Starve the Bad Bacteria
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.
Foods to Avoid to Starve Bad Bacteria
- Processed and packaged foods
- Sugary treats (especially those containing sucrose)
- High sugar fruits like mangoes, grapes, figs, watermelon, and pears
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 than 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 flavors. Not only will this result in better digestion, but you will also 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.
Reduce Mealtime Stress
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.
Are you ready to take control back from those bossy bad bacteria, reduce bloating and feel energized by the food you eat?
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.
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Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP, is a woman’s hormone expert and the owner of Wise Woman Wellness LLC, an innovative wellness and hormone care center at 1480 Swan Road, De Pere. Mann is the author of the eBook: A Guide to Gluten and Going Gluten Free. She is a board certified Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner and NAMS Certified Menopause Practitioner, one of a handful in Wisconsin and less than 1600 worldwide to achieve this distinction. She combines the best of conventional, functional and integrative medicine to help women with female, thyroid and adrenal hormone issues to live healthier, more abundant, joy-filled lives using a blend of compassion, cutting edge science, practical guidance and humor. Contact her at 920-339-5252 or via the Internet at www.wisewomanwellness.com. Join the introductory virtual seminar, “End Hormone Havoc – Crazy Hormones Cause Fatigue, Weight Gain and Brain Fog and How to Fix Them!”, offered monthly, to learn about specialized thyroid, adrenal and female hormone testing and customized, bioidentical hormone treatments to achieve lifelong optimal hormone balance, increased vitality and longevity.