I’ve previously written about good gut health being more than just a lack of problems and how you can benefit from the Bifidogenic Effect, a situation where consuming prebiotics stimulates the growth of helpful Bifidobacteria. If we consider gut health on a spectrum from ‘bad’ to ‘best’, then the Bifidogenic Effect is a characteristic of the best digestive tracts. However, people with digestive problems are on the other end of the spectrum, and they generally lack either substantial Bifidobacteria diversity and/or a sufficient proportion of these healthy bacteria. We refer to this loss of healthy gut bacteria and the corresponding rise in harmful bacteria as Dysbiosis. When the balance shifts in this direction, bowel regularity is lost, the individual may suffer from diarrhea or constipation, and the lining of the gut may become inflamed.
In some cases, Dysbiosis may occur as a side-effect of otherwise helpful measures. For example, a patient prescribed broad spectrum antibiotics to help fight an infection will experience significant loss of bacteria in their gut. This is because the antibiotics target not just the harmful bacteria but many helpful bacteria as well. The loss of healthy bacteria in the gut is the reason why antibiotics can sometimes cause diarrhea or digestive issues – when these healthy bacteria are lost, they can no longer help regulate stool bulk and water balance in the colon.
In others, a Dysbiotic gut may result from a diet lacking fiber and prebiotics. Here, the gut microbial ecosystem is starved by a lack of resources and resident Bifidobacteria cannot grow to levels necessary to benefit the gut. This weakened, less diverse ecosystem is at-risk of being over-run by harmful bacteria such as the drug-resistant pathogen Clostridium difficile (also known as C. difficile or “C. diff”) or enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, a common cause of traveler’s diarrhea.
Dysbiosis is also associated with gut inflammation. Approximately 70% of your body’s immune system is involved in monitoring and responding the pathogens in the gut. Healthy bacteria play an important role in mediating the immune response by calming regulatory immune cells so that the immune system is better focused on actual threats. In the absence of this calming effect, inflammation levels increase and the immune system attacks non-threatening agents like food or other cells in the body. Even worse, pathogenic bacteria may secrete toxins, which contribute to inflammation, and can also cause pain, diarrhea, and cramping.
Dysbiosis is clearly as unpleasant as its name suggests and there are many factors associated with the development of this condition. However, clinical evidence suggests that prebiotic supplementation is sufficient to produce the Bifidogenic Effect and reverse Dysbiosis. Once healthy, the gut microbiome should better resist infection from pathogenic bacteria, an important consideration for anyone at risk of hospital-acquired gut infections or those travelling to locations where traveler’s diarrhea is a concern.