We hear it all the time. The Western diet is killing us. It is associated with the growing rate of chronic diseases. There is an increasing rate of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and lung diseases.  We are told that the only way to overcome these diseases is to change our diet and to change our behaviours.

I agree we need to do that. But we have another important factor that needs to be considered with diet and behaviour.
And that is our gut microbiome. The 100 trillion cells that are living in our intestine. This factory that produces hormones, amino acids, neurotransmitters, vitamins, enzymes and dozens of other helpful substances play a major part in our well being or making you feel like cr*p.

What do the bacteria in our guts have to do with what we eat?

Good question.

These bacteria can alter the fate of the food we eat, the medications we consume and the hormones we produce.
And these are pretty powerful affects you will see.

What is a Western Diet?

The typical Western diet is where you consume high amounts of processed meat, fast foods, refined grains and sugar containing foods, refined vegetable oils and low levels of vegetables (other than potatoes) and fruit (other than canned fruit).

The typical Western lifestyle (TWL) also includes low activity, high stress occupations, being sedentary, binge drinking and smoking.

But even if you don’t binge drink and don’t smoke it does not let you off the hook, as you will see.

So what happens if you are living the typical Western lifestyle? This lifestyle is associated with several conditions including obesity, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, cancer, fatty liver and auto-immune diseases.

Now, I am not saying that the ONLY cause of all the above diseases is due to the typical Western lifestyle.  There are several risk factors for developing chronic diseases including genetic, environmental, demographic, social and other factors. We are for now focussing on the effect of the TWL on the microbiome and it effects on health.

What is Inflammation?

An unbalanced diet, stress and smoking can each trigger an inflammatory response leading to low-grade generalised inflammation.

Simply put, it is the body’s response to limit the invasion by infectious organisms (bacteria, virus, fungus, parasite) and to control tissue damage after injury.

The inflammatory process is very complex but all we have to know is that the process is protective and is meant to be for the short term (acute).  So, it you get an infection, a complex series of actions happens to recognise and eliminate the organisms and to remember what sort of organism it was so if you get another of the same infection, the body can quickly recognise it and get rid of it.

But you can also get chronic (long term) inflammation and this is not good. One way the Western lifestyle can cause inflammation is by increasing the number of compounds and microbial products with inflammatory capability. Among these are lipopolysaccharides (LPS).

LPS are part of the outer membrane of certain bacteria that are abundant in the large bowel. When the bacteria die (and they are constantly multiplying and dying) these LPS fragments are released. They should be excreted making up part of the stool.

If there is damage to the intestinal lining the LPS can get into the circulation and you get inflammation. If this is a continuous process you get chronic inflammation.

I need to digress a little to make sure you understand the concept of damage to the intestinal lining or leaky gut.

Bear with me if you already know what leaky gut is.

What is Leaky Gut?

The gut lining is made of cells joined together. The join or “glue’ that holds the cells together is where the damage can occur. A number of conditions can damage the “glue”. Once damaged undigested food and bacterial remnants like LPS can get into the gut lining and into the circulation.

And what do you think causes a leaky gut?

In the context of this blog the answer is the Typical Western Lifestyle.

So back to LPS.

What are Lipopolysaccharides (LPS)?

LPS is a very pro-inflammatory, meaning it causes inflammation. In the inflammatory process the body produces chemical called cytokines that cause inflammation.

Remember inflammation is good BUT only in the short term.

So if the leaky gut is not treated there will be a constant stream of LPS getting into circulation causing inflammation into the long term – so Chronic Inflammation.

What conditions are associated with high levels of LPS?

Be prepared to be surprised!

Studies have shown that LPS is associated with:

  1. Depression and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease
  2. Cardiovascular diseases and atherosclerosis
  3. Chronic fatigue syndrome
  4. Cancer
  5. Type 2 diabetes
  6. Obesity
  7. Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus)
  8. Eye diseases (retinal)
  9. Autoimmune joint diseases

What in the Western Lifestyle affect LPS release?

There are 4 behaviours that contribute.

  1. Sedentary lifestyle. Studies have shown that sedentary people have higher levels of LPS in their blood than people who exercise.
  2. Smoking 
  3. Stress. Animal studies have shown that stress hormones stimulate the growth of LPS-containing bacteria by as much 100,000 times more than before stress.  This occurred within 24 hours of the stress.  This is quite astounding. We know it is an animal study but even it increases by 1000 times more, consider if you are sedentary as well!
  4. Unhealthy diet. The wrong fats such as used by the fast food industry eg polyunsaturated oils cause a marked increase in blood LPS levels. Studies have shown that fish oil and coconut oil are protective against this LPS effect.

What can you do to protect against this LPS effect?

  1. Exercise reduces the pro-inflammatory state. It does a lot of other things but some of these can be seen in this blog.
  2. Omega 3 fatty acids – ie fish oils can reverse the inflammatory effects of the omega 3 oils ie polyunsaturated oils.
  3. Dietary polyphenols like cocoa, cranberry (not juice as it is very high in added sugar), grape and curcumin. They function as antioxidants and strengthen intestinal barrier function (heal leaky gut), prevent the loss of good bacteria.
  4. Probiotics. This is a complex area where a huge amount of research is being undertaken. Most probiotics purchased contain 2 different types of probiotics which are Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria.

    However, there are numerous strains of these bacteria and they seem to have different functions in the gut. Some strains of Lactobacillus for instance can lower chemicals in the gut that can cause cancer. Others can improve liver function of alcoholics. Others again can improve cardiovascular risk in smokers and even reduce blood pressure in these people.

  5. Prebiotics. These are non-digestible fibres that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Examples of these are inulin, fructooligosaccharides, resistant starch, pectin etc. These are metabolised to Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs) mainly butyrate, propionate and acetate.

    These remarkable beneficial bacteria produce these substances that have a number of positive effects. These reduce insulin sensitivity in the fat tissue and therefore fat accumulation. This means that there is a reduction in the uptake and oxidation of toxic fatty acids in other tissues.

If you are suffering from any of the conditions listed above you may need to have a Comprehensive Stool Test done. The stool is cultured for the bacteria and you get a report that gives a qualitative and a quantitative result. The report will reveal the balance or imbalance of the gut microbiome. From this result a treatment plan can be formulated to bring the balance back to the gut microbiome.

Does this mean that fixing the gut microbiome will fix all the diseases mentioned above. The short answer is No. A lot of other things go wrong to affect a particular organ or tissue that results in a disease. The gut microbiome is one aspect that may need fixing. Sometimes the disease has progressed to a stage that may need conventional medicine to bring things under control whilst working on the gut microbiome, digestion, nutrition, toxins etc.

As always, this blog is not intended to diagnose or advise treatment of your condition. It is only meant to educate. Always seek advice from a qualified health practitioner.

You can read more here.

Yours in Health,
Dr Iggy Soosay