Are Gastrointestinal Disorders
Making You Fat?

By Adrian Lopresti, PhD

Recent research has pointed to gastrointestinal disorders as contributors to the obesity problem we are faced with these days. In this article we will examine how gut health, in particular intestinal flora, can have an impact on your ability to lose or gain weight.

Obesity is reaching epidemic proportions in our society today and alarmingly, the problem is only getting worse. This is despite there being numerous diets claiming miraculous transformations after 'only days'. They promise that you will never be hungry and the fat will vanish forever. However, after some initial success and hard work, people eventually pack the weight back on and generally with reinforcements!

A commonly mentioned reason for an inability to lose weight relates to one's 'slow metabolism'. 'I have a slow metabolism and that is why it is so hard to lose weight', is a common reason used to explain our ongoing weight-loss struggle.

Are Gastrointestinal Disorders Making You Fat?

Our thyroid is often blamed for this slow metabolism and for some this is certainly the case. Suffering from clinical hypothyroidism or the lesser known condition, sub-optimal thyroid disorder can slow our metabolic rate, reduce our energy and make the challenge of losing weight even harder.

Recent research has also directed attention toward the importance of the gastrointestinal tract (gut) in contributing to weight problems. More specifically, studies have shown that there is a significant difference in good bacteria between obese and lean people and this has led to interest in to whether changing the bacteria composition of the intestinal flora could be a potential treatment for weight problems.

Our gut contains trillions of bacteria, known as intestinal flora, which are designed to enhance the overall health of our body.

When the bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract are in balance it improves our health in the following ways:

  • Improves digestion
  • Regulates the immune system
  • Increases the overall efficiency of the body
  • Crowds out harmful microbes
  • Produces natural antibiotic effects
  • Slows the growth of pathogens
  • Reduces the harmful effects of cholesterol
  • Studies on the relationship between intestinal flora and obesity have found that having too much of a particular class of gut flora known as Firmicutes and not enough Bacteroidetes leads the digestive tract to more efficiently extract energy from food.

    This means that if we have a higher ratio of Firmicutes compared to Bacteroidetes, when we eat food, more calories are taken from it, thereby leading to the increased potential of weight gain. So even if two people eat the same amount of food and perform the same amount of exercise, the individual with more Firmicutes will put on more weight. Whilst this may sound good, it is actually considered to be one of the gastrointestinal disorders since some unwanted particles from food may be absorbed.

    While research in the area of intestinal flora and obesity is still in its infancy, some of the findings so far include:

  • Bifidobacterium species of bacteria (part of the 'lean-enhancing' Bacteroidetes class) has been shown to be higher in children who exhibited a normal weight at seven years than in children who became overweight.

  • Bifidobacteria levels were higher in normal-weight compared to overweight women and also in higher in women who experience less weight gain during pregnancy.

  • Having a gastrointestinal disorder caused by an imbalance in gut flora can contribute to inflammation which triggers the common inflammatory symptoms such as pain and swelling but can also result in insulin resistance and weight gain. Studies now consistently show that inflammation can lead to weight gain and weight gain can in turn increase inflammation. A vicious cycle is now in motion. Inflammation is a major cause and symptom of most gastrointestinal disorders.

  • In a study by Ley and colleagues they found that sterile mice that had no gut bacteria ate a lot, but didn't get fat, presumably because they didn't have the bacteria to extract the full complement of calories from their food. But when the scientists transferred the bacteria from fat mice to bacteria-free mice, the mice gained weight. The results suggested there's something about the bacterial community in the obese mice that contributes to weight gain.

  • What Affects the Composition of Intestinal Flora?

    There are numerous factors that can affect the composition of our intestinal flora and the likelihood of us having a higher proportion of Firmicutes compared to Bacteroidetes. It is suspected that genetics plays a part as we inherit bacteria from our mothers soon after birth.

    Studies have also shown that the type of birth delivery (vaginally versus caesarean section) can affect good bacteria levels. Our intestinal flora also changes with age and are also greatly influenced by medications such as antibiotics and antiulcer medications.

    The quality of our diet is also a major player when it comes to the composition of our intestinal flora and therefore, by extension, whether or not we have gastrointestinal disorders.

    Reducing processed sugar, refined carbohydrates and saturated facts can positively influence our gut health. Also, eating high-fibre foods that serve as prebiotics (fuel for our gut flora) is another important influence on our bacteria levels.

    Prebiotics have the effect of increasing certain strains of good bacteria and therefore helping to overcome gastrointestinal disorders. One particular fibre, known as arabinogalactans, has been shown to be particularly effective in enhancing the immune system and increasing lean-enhancing intestinal flora such as bacteroides and bifidobacterium. Arabinogalactans are contained in BCN's Gastro AG Forte. One teaspoon a day added to food or liquid can be a great step toward positively changing bacteria levels in the gastrointestinal tract.

    BCN's DigestEZE also contains a range of prebiotics in combination with other gut-soothing ingredients to help increase the amount of good bacteria in the gut, help overcome gastrintestinal disorders as well as improve gastrointestinal tract function.

    While more research in this area is needed, the findings on the effect of intestinal flora on weight gain so far are certainly exciting. It is one strategy that may enhance weight-loss efforts over time (it won't be overnight) and as a positive side effect, will likely improve overall health and well-being.

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