Alcohol & Gut Health: Eating to Restore Balance
There are trillions of bugs that live in the human stomach, small intestines and colon. Collectively known as the microbiome, these microbes form a community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic organisms that can have a huge impact on health and wellbeing. For example, studies have found that the beneficial bacteria found in our stomach play a huge part in the digestion and assimilation of food and have a tremendous influence on immune function and our ability to fight off illness and disease. Conversely, an imbalanced microbiome, what is often referred to as dysbiosis, is associated with chronic low-grade inflammation and many modern diseases such as insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, leaky gut, and depression.
There are many theories on how the microbiome affects health and suggestions on how we can better manage the bacteria in our bodies to promote physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing. Unfortunately, little attention is given to how addiction affects the microbiome and what measures those in recovery can do to restore bacterial balance in the body. Today that changes!
Here is a cool little video that provides some nice background information on the microbiome and how it affects human health.
Although the study of the microbiome is still its infancy and the science behind addiction and gut health is limited, here is an introduction on how alcoholism affects the human microbiome and what an individual in recovery can do to restore microbial balance.
Alcohol and the Gut
According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Physiology: Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, chronic alcohol consumption is associated with altered dysbiotic microbiota composition in a certain subset of alcoholics. Alcoholics with dysbiosis had lower median abundance of Bacteroidetes and higher levels of Proteobacteria. More Proteobacteria and less Bacteroidetes can increase the translocation of toxic substances into the bloodstream, a condition known as leaky gut, which contributes to the destruction of “self” cells and may lead to the development autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease.
Changes in microbial populations are also associated with increases in the production of lipopolysaccharides (LPS), metabolic endotoxemia, chronic inflammation and an altered blood-brain barrier. A compromised blood-brain barrier may facilitate the passage of toxins into neurological pathways and contribute to the development of depressive symptoms, anxiety, and cognitive deficits. The ability to remove potentially harmful endogenous and exogenous neurotoxins form the brain is also compromised by the production of LPS and metabolic endotoxemia, further contributing to the risk of depressive disorders.
Metabolic endotoxemia is also associated with increases and body weight and glucose metabolism disorders such as insulin resistance and diabetes. Unfortunately, weight gain, insulin resistance, and diabetes further promote the production of LPS feeding the vicious cycle of dysbiosis, inflammation, leaky gut, neurological dysfunction, weight gain, and diabetes.
Also, according to the American Journal of Physiology study mentioned above, the effects of chronic alcohol consumption are not temporary but rather contribute to permanent alterations in microbial balance throughout the gastrointestinal tract.
But, there are a few things we can do nutritionally to prevent or reverse microbial imbalance.
Eating to Fight Dysbiosis
A Non-Western diet that promotes microbial balance and reverses dysbiosis is relatively low in fat and sugar, approximately 15% and 2% respectively, and high in structurally complex plant fiber. A diet low if fat and sugar and high in fiber promotes the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria, reduces systemic inflammation, reduces intestinal permeability, and stabilized blood sugar.
Plant foods known as prebiotics selectively stimulate the growth and activity of intestinal bacteria associated with health and wellbeing. Confirmed prebiotic substances include fructo-oligosaccharides (inulin), galacto-oligosacchardies, and lactulose, all of which are known as oligosaccharides. Foods rich in oligosaccharides include: chicory root, artichokes, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, wheat bran, and bananas.
According to Natasha Campbell-McBride, author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome, or the GAPS diet, additional foods that promote microbial balance, include:
- Meat, game, poultry, organ meats, fish and shellfish that are ethically sourced, fed a traditional diet, and produced without the use of hormones or antibiotics.
- Organic, cage-free eggs
- Fresh, ripe fruit with an emphasis on berries such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries
- Soaked nuts such as almonds, walnuts and cashews
- Soaked seeds such as pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower
- Soaked beans and legumes, if they are well tolerated.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and pickle can also have a profound effect on the microbiota by magnifying the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect of foods; reducing intestinal permeability and the harm caused by LPS; improving glycemic control and nutritional status; and positively shifts gut-to-brain communication.
A diet that helps reestablish microbial balance is casein and gluten free and helps manage the presence of gut toxins. Foods that should be avoided when establishing microbial balance or treating dysbiosis, include:
- Highly allergenic substances like gluten, wheat, and dairy or foods that may contain them
- Nutrient deficient processed foods that are generally high in refined carbohydrates like white flour, added sugars like sucrose and industrial fats like hydrogenated and vegetable oils
- Soy foods such as tofu, edamame or soy based dairy alternatives
- Added and artificial sugars such as sucrose, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and aspartame
- Highly refined white flours such as those found in cakes, cookies, bread and ready to eat frozen foods.
- Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, acorn and butternut squash.
The microbiome and stress are also interdependent, stress affecting the bacterial composition of the gut, which, in turn, affects our ability to efficiently and effectively handle physical and psychological stress.
We still have a lot to learn about the scores of bacteria living in the gut and how it interacts with the body to affect health, but incorporating more gut friendly foods is great way for an alcoholic to restore microbial balance and heal some of the damage caused by years of neglect and abuse.
Image courtesy of Nicola Segata and Curtis Huttonhower of the Harvard School of Public Health, National Institute of Health Human Microbiome Project