The gut is a complex ecosystem filled with billions of bacteria. But did you know that an imbalance in the intestinal flora can have adverse effects on our entire organism? This imbalance is known as intestinal dysbiosis, a problem that goes beyond the usual problems that usually come to mind when we think of intestinal disorders. The good news is that the possibility of preventing this problem and tackling it exists and lies within each of us.
What is intestinal dysbiosis?
Gut dysbiosis is an imbalance in the composition of the gut microbiota, i.e. the collection of micro-organisms that inhabit the gut and play crucial roles in digestion, nutrient absorption, vitamin production and protection against pathogens.
In a healthy situation, there is a balance between beneficial and potentially harmful bacteria. However, in dysbiosis, this balance is disturbed, resulting in an overabundance of harmful bacteria or a reduction in the amount of beneficial bacteria.
Importantly, imbalances in the microbiota can have an impact beyond the digestive tract. For example, it has been observed that the two-way communication between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis, can influence mental health.
In this regard, several mechanisms could explain the connection between gut dysbiosis and depression. One involves the production of neurotransmitters in the gut, such as serotonin, which play a key role in mood regulation. In addition, the chronic inflammation associated with dysbiosis may influence brain function and contribute to mental health problems.
Furthermore, gut dysbiosis can also affect intestinal permeability, known as ‘leaky gut’. This could allow unwanted molecules to enter the bloodstream and reach the brain, potentially contributing to brain inflammation and psychological disorders.
What are the symptoms of intestinal dysbiosis?
Intestinal dysbiosis can manifest itself through a variety of symptoms. However, it is important to note that, in its early stages, dysbiosis may be asymptomatic.
As dysbiosis progresses, the following symptoms may appear:
- Abdominal pain and digestive discomfort: patients may experience abdominal pain, intestinal cramping and digestive discomfort, such as bloating and a feeling of heaviness after meals. They may also experience heartburn and a burning sensation in the chest due to acid reflux from the stomach into the oesophagus.
- Gastrointestinal problems: dysbiosis can cause gastrointestinal disorders, including diarrhoea and/or chronic constipation. Here attention should be paid to stool patterns, as they may change, with poorly formed stools and alterations in consistency. In addition, there may be changes in bowel habits, alternating between episodes of diarrhoea and constipation.
- Gas and flatulence: Excessive gas, belching and flatulence can be symptoms of dysbiosis because an imbalance in the microbiota can lead to abnormal gas production.
- General malaise and headache: patients may experience general malaise, tiredness and fatigue. These symptoms may be related to the effect of dysbiosis on nutrient absorption.
- Extra-intestinal symptoms: in addition to gastrointestinal symptoms, some patients may experience symptoms not directly related to the digestive tract, such as headaches and allergies, as well as skin problems such as acne or eczema.
- Food intolerances: the presence of unbalanced flora can make the digestive system more sensitive to certain foods, which may lead to food intolerances.
- Difficulty losing weight: An imbalance in the microbiota may influence metabolism and make it difficult to lose weight.
- Urinary tract infections and recurrent candidiasis: an imbalance in the gut microbiota can also lead to yeast infections.
It is important to note that these symptoms are not unique to intestinal dysbiosis and may be present in other diseases. It is therefore necessary to see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
How is intestinal dysbiosis diagnosed?
The diagnosis of intestinal dysbiosis is based on a combination of clinical symptoms, laboratory tests and specialised studies.
First, the doctor will collect the patient’s medical history, including symptoms, dietary habits and previous medications. Next, a physical examination will be performed to assess any physical manifestations of intestinal dysbiosis, such as bloating or pain.
The doctor will also order laboratory tests to assess the state of the gut microbiota. These tests may include stool tests to detect the presence of pathogenic bacteria, fungi or parasites, as well as to assess the composition and diversity of the gut microbiota. Blood tests may also be ordered to assess inflammatory markers and liver function, as gut dysbiosis may be associated with chronic inflammation and liver dysfunction.
In addition, specialised tests can be performed, such as the intestinal permeability test, which assesses the integrity of the intestinal barriers. Increased intestinal permeability may indicate the presence of intestinal dysbiosis. A food intolerance test may also be ordered. This test will help identify specific foods that may be triggers for dysbiosis.
What are the causes of intestinal dysbiosis?
The causes of gut dysbiosis are diverse and may be related to several factors that affect the balance of the microbiota in the gut. Some of the most common causes include:
- Poor diet: Eating a diet high in refined sugars, processed foods and low in fibre can encourage the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut, upsetting the balance of the microbiota.
- Antibiotic use: Antibiotics, especially when used chronically or unnecessarily, can kill not only harmful bacteria but also beneficial bacteria in the gut, which can lead to imbalances. One of the main causes of dysbiosis is the overuse of antibiotics.
- Stress: Chronic stress can affect gut function and alter the composition of the microbiota. Prolonged stress can negatively affect the immune system and gut function. This can encourage the growth of harmful bacteria and suppress beneficial bacteria.
- Inflammatory diseases: health problems affecting the digestive system, such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and coeliac disease, can upset the balance of the microbiota.
- Infections: Acute intestinal infections may temporarily alter the composition of the microbiota, and in some cases, this alteration may persist after infection.
- Excessive alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol consumption can damage the lining of the gut and encourage the growth of undesirable bacteria.
- Unhealthy lifestyle: Factors such as lack of exercise, smoking and lack of sleep can also contribute to dysbiosis.
- Ageing: As we age, there may be a decrease in the diversity and abundance of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
- Chronic diseases: some chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity and metabolic diseases, have been associated with changes in the gut microbiota.
- Environmental factors: Exposure to environmental pollutants and chemicals can also influence the health of the gut microbiota.
It should be noted that gut dysbiosis can be caused by a combination of factors and that each individual may respond differently. However, this very circumstance makes it easier to prevent this health problem. We look at it below.
How to prevent intestinal dysbiosis?
There are several measures to prevent intestinal dysbiosis. One of the most important is to maintain a balanced diet rich in fibre. The main reason is that fibre helps to feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut, promoting a healthy environment. To this end, it is important to make sure to include foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and pulses in your daily diet.
In addition, it is essential to avoid excessive consumption of processed foods rich in refined sugars. These can feed harmful bacteria and contribute to microbiota imbalance.
Another way to prevent intestinal dysbiosis is to avoid the indiscriminate use of antibiotics. Antibiotics may be necessary in some cases, but overuse can also kill beneficial bacteria and cause dysbiosis. It is therefore important to use these drugs only when they are really necessary and under medical supervision.
In addition, it is advisable to consume fermented foods, such as yoghurt, kefir or sauerkraut. These foods contain beneficial bacteria that can help strengthen intestinal health.
It is also important to reduce stress and lead a healthy lifestyle in general. Chronic stress can negatively affect the gut microbiota. It is therefore important to find ways to manage and reduce stress, such as practising relaxation techniques, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. Importantly, some research shows that yoga and meditation can help your body absorb nutrients. It can also increase blood flow to the brain and back to the gut. This, as well as preventing it, can reduce some of the symptoms of dysbiosis.
Treatment of intestinal dysbiosis
Eliminate pathogenic bacteria
In the initial phase of gut dysbiosis treatment, the aim is to reduce or eliminate the pathogenic or harmful bacteria that are causing the imbalance in the gut microbiota.
This can be achieved through various approaches:
- Dietary changes: this involves eliminating or reducing the consumption of foods that can feed pathogenic bacteria, such as refined sugars and simple carbohydrates.
- Use of specific antibiotics: In more severe cases, specific antibiotics may be prescribed to kill harmful bacteria. However, this should be done with caution so as not to adversely affect beneficial bacteria.
Restocking using probiotics
Once the presence of pathogenic bacteria has been reduced, the gut microbiota is repopulated with beneficial bacteria. Probiotics are used for this purpose. Probiotics are live microorganisms that have a positive impact on gut health.
At this stage, it is necessary to consider the following:
- Selection of appropriate probiotics: it is important to choose probiotics that contain specific strains of beneficial bacteria that have been shown to have positive effects on gut health.
- Dosage and duration of treatment: The dosage and duration of probiotic treatment may vary depending on the individual situation. It is therefore advisable to follow your doctor’s instructions.
Lifestyle and gut health
Gut health goes beyond diet: it is a reflection of a balanced lifestyle. To this end, establishing healthy eating habits and introducing habits that help us manage stress are very useful. In addition, maintaining healthy social relationships and surrounding ourselves with a natural environment contributes to our overall well-being.