What is Dysbiosis?
Dysbiosis is a term for a microbial imbalance that most often affects a person’s digestive tract. That being said, dysbiosis can also affect the skin, eyes, lungs, ears, nose, sinuses, nails, and vagina.
Dysbiosis is also sometimes called dysbacteriosis or bacterial dysbiosis. That is because the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) contains both “good” and “bad” bacteria to form the gut flora—also called the gut microbe. But, other tiny organisms also reside in the gastrointestinal tract, including yeast, fungus, viruses, and parasites.
The dysbiosis pronunciation is “diss-bi-osis.” Russian-born microbiologist and zoologist, Dr. Elie Metchnikoff, would first coin the term in the 20th century. Dr. Metchnikoff is the first scientist to discover the impact of the properties of probiotics—also known as that “good bacteria.” The terms “dys” and “symbiosis” translate to “not living in harmony.”
Link Between Digestive System and Dysbiosis
The gut, or GI tract, has three major roles: the absorption of nutrients, the digestion of foods while converting food into vitamins, and the prevention of toxins and pathogens from entering your body. There are approximately 500 species of bacteria that make up “the gut flora.” The beneficial bacteria are essential for good digestion and the proper maintenance of the intestines. The most common classification of “good bacteria” will begin with the names “Bifidobacteria,” or “Lactobacillus.”
When the gut flora is balanced, it is called “orthobiosis,” which again is a term introduced by Dr. Metchnikoff in the early 1900s. He considered dysbiosis so serious that is also said, “death begins in the gut.” The issue here is that not all of the friendly organisms in the gut flora are “friendly.” In fact, when there is an overgrowth of bacteria, parasites, fungus, yeast, or other organisms, it can lead to dysbiosis.
What Causes Dysbiosis?
In general, women are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with a digestive disorder than men. In the U.S., it is estimated that over 30 million people suffer from an imbalance in the GI tract. However, that number is probably a lot higher considering that there are so many potential causes of gut dysbiosis. The following are some of the dysbiosis causes:
- Antibiotic use: Antibiotics seem to be prescribed for everything these days, especially when they are not needed (i.e. in cases of the common cold, the flu, bronchitis, most sore throats, and many ear and sinus infections). Every time antibiotics are taken, they kill all the bacteria—even the “good” kind. Over prescribing antibiotics will also cause antibiotic resistance, which means the antibiotics don’t only kill the “good bacteria,” but they may not even help in cases of bacterial infections.
- Use of other drugs: Proton-pump inhibitors and antacids are designed to block hydrochloric acid production in the stomach, but that acid is the first line of defense against microbes that enter the body with food. When that acid is blocked, the body no longer defends against the “bad microbes.” The overuse of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) also inhibits the growth of the “good bacteria.”
- Fermentation: Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is a carbohydrate intolerance condition induced by bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, large intestine, and stomach. Any carbohydrate will ferment by the “bad bacteria” and produce toxic waste products as a result.
- Chronic stress: Chronic stress will increase hormone levels, and this also highly impairs the immune system, which creates an environment in the GI tract that is susceptible to dysbiosis.
- Poor diet: A poor diet is another major factor in dysbiosis. Low-fiber diets, high-fat and high-protein diets, and diets high in sugar and processed foods can slow down gut motility, and also often lack nutrients necessary to nourish and repair the digestive organs, including the GI tract. Candida is a type of yeast that lives off sugar and processed foods, which highly disturb the balance of organisms in the body. Gluten sensitivity is also a factor in dysbiosis.
- Environmental factors: Environmental factors that influence dysbiosis include contaminated food and water, exposure to manufactured chemicals or toxic metals, the presence of fungus or mold in the home, and living in a foggy or damp climate.
Signs and Symptoms of Dysbiosis
There are several dysbiosis signs and symptoms linked the condition. Here are the intestinal dysbiosis symptoms you will often experience:
- The common recurring digestive issues will include chronic diarrhea, heartburn, chronic constipation, bloating, belching, abdominal pain, frequent indigestion, bad breath, foul-smelling stools, undigested food in the stool, or nausea after taking supplements
- Weight loss due to malabsorption, or weight gain
- Food allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances
- Sugar cravings, including alcohol
- Rectal or vagina itching
- Weak of cracked fingernails
- Iron deficiency
- Loss of libido and infertility
- Chronic sinus congestion
- Bladder problems like interstitial cystitis
- Hyperactivity like behavioral and learning disorders
- Mental fog
Other Health Conditions Associated with Dysbiosis
Gut dysbiosis can lead to bowel and intestinal lining changes, which then increases the permeability of the intestine. This results in leaky gut syndrome—also called increased intestinal permeability. Basically, the lining of the intestines and bowel loses its integrity, which opens the door to parasites, viruses, bacteria, and also undigested food molecules. The aggravated immune system will also become unstable, and may attack the body and even lead to autoimmune diseases. The following are some of the other conditions associated with gut dysbiosis:
- Common digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, lactose intolerance, gastritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Chronic intestinal infections like candida or parasites, thrush, and chronic vaginitis, or bacterial vaginosis
- Depression or anxiety
- Joint pain and arthritis
- Interstitial cystitis
- Hyperactivity like behavioral and learning disorders
- Chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia
- Skin conditions like acne or hives
- Restless leg syndrome
- Diabetes, obesity, and thyroid diseases
- Multiple sclerosis
How to Diagnose Dysbiosis
Right away let’s make something clear. Dysbiosis is often suspected when the patients have a food intolerance or allergy, unexplained fatigue, malnutrition, neuropsychiatric symptoms, breast or colon cancer, or inflammatory, autoimmune, or gastrointestinal disorders. You should also seek help if you regularly experience lots of digestive problems like gas, bloating, or diarrhea. The most useful diagnostic test for dysbiosis is called a comprehensive digestive stool analysis (CDSA).
The CDSA will include a number of procedures such as biochemical evaluations of digestion, evaluation of bacterial microflora, detection of abnormal mycology, evaluation of intestinal absorption, and the detection of metabolic markers of intestinal metabolism. From these tests, excessive triglycerides, meat, vegetable fibers, fatty acids, or cholesterol may indicate gut dysbiosis.
Severe dysbiosis cases may also result in abnormal blood tests that indicate low levels of vitamin B12 and folic acid, and malabsorption of proteins.
Other tests used for dysbiosis include the breath hydrogen test, candida testing, the Genova IP test for leaky gut, u-biome tests to offer a bigger picture of the bacteria in the body, and zonulin testing. Zonulin is a protein that is commonly implicated in leaky gut syndrome and levels will often be high.
Natural Treatment Option for Dysbiosis
In general, dysbiosis symptoms and treatment go hand in hand. This means that the dysbiosis treatment should be based on a person’s symptoms and conditions. The first step in the treatment of dysbiosis is the removal of various aggravating factors like antibiotics, other drugs, and certain dietary factors that may be the cause of the bacterial or organism overgrowth. Some drugs used in a dysbiosis treatment may include rifaxamin, ciprofloxacin, norfloxacin, or co-trimoxazole.
However, there are also several remedies used in a natural dysbiosis treatment that may be useful as well. Here are some natural remedies and treatment that should find a home in your medicine cabinet:
1. Probiotics: A high-potency probiotic is essential for the restoration of the bacterial population in the gut. The dosage of probiotic will depend mostly on the severity of your gut dysbiosis. Most high quality probiotic supplements will contain lactobacillus, saccharomyces boulardii, bifidobacterium, and a combination of other probiotic species.
2. Prebiotics: Prebiotics are thought to stimulate the activity and growth of probiotics in the gut. That is why it is a good idea to also take supplements with prebiotics like fructooligosaccharides (FOS), inulin, larch arabinogalactins, modified citrus pectin, and high-soluble fiber like psyllium husk.
3. Herbal therapy: There are many useful herbs in a natural dysbiosis treatment. Some of these herbal remedies include oregano oil, garlic, goldenseal or berberine, wormwood or Chinese wormwood; grapefruit seed extract, thyme, cat’s claw, tea tree oil, peppermint, pau d’arco, Echinacea, fennel, amalaki reishi mushroom, olive leaf, cinnamon, myrrh, turmeric, burdock bearberry, elecampane, Oregon grape, kelp, and calendula.
4. Essential oils: A study published in the journal Alternative Medicine Review in 2009 found that the most promising essential oils for dysbiosis include caraway, lavender, ajwain, and bitter orange. The herbs that make these oils have long been used for gastrointestinal symptoms, and results of the study suggest that they will not negatively impact the gut flora. Other essential oils found to have a positive impact on the GI tract include sweet fennel, star anise, and peppermint.
5. Homeopathic remedies: There are various homeopathic remedies used to benefit the digestive system. For instance, candida albicans is a homeopathic preparation that is useful when candida overgrowth is a contributing factor to gut dysbiosis. Other remedies recommended for inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract include cantharis, aresnicum album, colocynthis, carbo vegetabilis, nux vomica, china, and pulsatilla.
Another major component of the dysbiosis treatment is improving the diet. First, it is a good idea to remove potential food allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances from the diet. You can help determine food allergies with a food elimination diet or an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). You can detect energetic food imbalances and sensitivities in the body with tests like a bio-meridian test, bio-analysis with bio-energetic testing, and a meridian stress assessment test.
That being said, the dysbiosis diet will contain some common characteristics. The nutrients most likely to be lacking to maintain and repair the digestive organs include the B-complex vitamins, essential fatty acids, magnesium, calcium, vitamins C and E, zinc, beta-carotene, selenium, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and the sulfur amino acids. Overall, the dysbiosis diet will contain certain foods while removing others from the diet.
Foods to Eat: These foods can be listed in the “safe to eat” category unless you are sensitive or allergic to them.
- Organic and grass-fed meats
- Wild fish
- Green leafy vegetables
- Other vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, or cucumbers
Foods to Avoid: Here are the foods you should avoid at all costs when you dysbiosis.
- Processed foods and meats
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes
- Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, cane sugar, sucrose, glucose, fructose, or corn syrup
- Most fruit like bananas, citrus fruits, grapes, or tree fruits like cherries, pears, or apples
- Refined carbohydrates and grains such as wheat, corn, oats, barley, or other flours
- Any mold-containing food like mushrooms, shelled nuts, old veggies, or leftovers
Complications of Dysbiosis
There are various complications of gut dysbiosis. Here is a deeper look at some of the complications and conditions that may result from dysbiosis:
- Atopic eczema: Skin conditions are a common result of dysbiosis, but especially atopic eczema. Most atopic eczema patients have malabsorption and intestinal dysbiosis.
- Candida: Candida is the condition where fungus and yeast will grow out of control, and lead to certain debilitating symptoms like persistent fatigue, muscle pain, constipation, and rectal itching.
- Irritable bowel syndrome: Various studies have found that IBS patients have a greater likelihood of abnormal fecal flora.
- Other possible dysbiosis complications: When dysbiosis is left untreated it can lead to severe fungal infections, and even increase the risk of cancer.
Prevention of Dysbiosis
It is always better to prevent a disease or condition from starting in the first place. The following are a few gut dysbiosis prevention methods:
- Eat an overall healthy and clean diet that contains lots of green leafy vegetables, organic meats, and totally avoid processed foods.
- Avoid alcohol or extremely limit your intake to once every few months. All forms of alcohol contain acetaldehyde, yeast, and other ingredients that harm the balance of bacteria and other organisms in the GI tract.
- Avoid antibiotics, and other drugs like proton-pump inhibitors, antacids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). All of these drugs inhibit the growth of “good” bacteria in the GI tract and rest of the body.
Lifestyle Changes for Dysbiosis
There are also various lifestyle changes that can be made to help prevent and treat intestinal dysbiosis symptoms. The following are some changes you can make to improve the balance of bacteria in the GI tract:
- Massage therapy and aromatherapy: Stress is a major factor in the development of dysbiosis. Massage therapy can help reduce stress and support detoxification for those undergoing treatment for chronic cases of candida or dysbiosis. Some of the best essential oils used during the massage include lavender, peppermint, and myrrh.
- Dental hygiene: Organism and bacterial overgrowth can certainly occur in the mouth. That is why it is important to maintain good dental hygiene like brushing your gums and teeth twice a day minimum. After brushing, also use a tongue scrapper and antibacterial essential oil mouthwash.
- Other relaxation methods: Other ways to reduce stress related with gut dysbiosis include acupuncture, yoga, exercise, or meditation.
Dysbiosis: Key Points to Remember
It is important to remember that what you put into your body can have a major impact for your GI tract and your gut bacteria. Also, dysbiosis can occur at other parts of the body besides the gut.
Candida and dysbiosis can also spread through sexual intercourse. That is why both partners should be treated when dysbiosis, candida, or other bacterial infection is suspected. Also, healing dysbiosis is very individual and what may work for one person may not work for another. It is important to work with a natural health practitioner like a naturopathic doctor or holistic nutritionist that specializes in candida or dysbiosis treatment.
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Hawrelak, J.A., et al., “Essential oils in the treatment of intestinal dysbiosis: A preliminary in vitro study,” Alternative Medicine Review, December 2009; 14(4): 380-384.
Balch, J., et al., Prescription for Natural Cures: A Self-Care Guide for Treating Health Problems with Natural Remedies Including Diet, Nutrition, Supplements, and Other Holistic Methods (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004), 128-133.
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