You are BETTER than your bowel flora

As often happens in our Wheat Belly conversations, we end up talking about bowel health. After all, our unwitting bowels are the primary means through which we (used to) ingest this thing that annoys, erodes, irritates, and generally wreaks havoc on our health. The gastrointestinal tract, probably more than any other organ system, is the unhappy recipient of most of wheat’s destructive properties.

The composition of your bowel flora, the little bacterial critters populating your gastrointestinal tract and outnumbering the number of cells in the rest of your body (yes: you are mostly a bacterial organism, judging by numbers! over 2 pounds in total), are increasingly appearing to be major players in overall health. Witness, for instance, this talk of “fecal transplants” in which the bowel flora/stool of a slender animal is transplanted into the intestinal tract of an overweight animal–and the overweight animal loses weight. Fecal bacteriotherapy may, in fact, be entering mainstream treatment for Clostridium dificile infection.

The 1) number, 2) species, and 3) locations (e.g., duodenum, jejenum, ileum, as well as colon and rectum) of bowel flora can vary from person to person. Obesity, for instance, is associated with greater numbers of Firmicutes and Staphylococcus aureus and reductions in Bacteroidetes and Bifidobacterium (Ley 2006).

Fact: Wheat-eating humans have different species and numbers of bowel flora compared to non-wheat consuming humans, judging from the celiac disease population who eliminate wheat/gluten and experience shifts in bacterial populations (though also modified by the disease itself).

Before wheat/gluten elimination, there are greater numbers of Bacteroides, Clostridium and Staphylococcus species and reduced numbers of Bifidobacteria. Wheat/gluten elimination results in reductions of those species and increases in Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species.

The challenge comes when a wheat-eating human decides to stop consuming this gastrointestinal toxin called wheat: Bowel flora has to make the shift to a healthier profile of species, numbers, and locations. Ideally, remove the wheat and normal bowel flora species repopulate the gut, and normal bowel function proceeds with good digestion, normal bowel regularity, and normal stool character. But sometimes bowel flora fail to promptly repopulate with the right species and there is a period of bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, and poor digestion.

This is when probiotics can come to the rescue. Probiotics are nothing more than a collection of healthy bacteria designed to repopulate the gastrointestinal tract with “good” bacteria and crowd out the undesirables. While understanding of bowel flora is still in its infancy, repopulating with Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus seems to provide relief from many of these wheat-free “transitional” struggles. Most people do best with higher counts of bacteria, e.g., 50 billion “colony-forming units,” or CFUs, the usual method of quantifying bacteria.

It is not entirely clear just how much time is required to repopulate your bowel flora, a time period also influenced by how well other aspects of gastrointestinal health recover–or fail to–with wheat removal (e.g., pancreatic function, cholecystikinin release). Four weeks is too short to full repopulate and, provided other aspects of bowel health have recovered, we should not require them chronically. I have been advising 8 or so weeks and that seems to work well for most people.

Perhaps a high-potency probiotic should be something we all consider to smooth the shift to a life of wheatlessness?

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113 Responses to You are BETTER than your bowel flora

  1. Gail says:

    I have recently purchased the Wheat Belly and Wheat Belly Cookbooks. I have been gluten-free for several months, but have still been experiencing stomach distress. While I have had Irritable Bowel my whole life, with predominant diarrhea, now constipation is predominant. I have tried probiotics, but it seems they increase my stomach “gurgling.” In the past nine months I’ve lost over 30 pounds, and that was a lot to lose from my 5’6″ frame, as I started at about 135lbs. I began my journey with the Body Ecology Diet (the weight loss seems to have been a result of this), then began experimenting with some Paleo Diet recipes, then made a few recipes from the book “Gluten-Free Girl Every Day”, and now to Dr. Davis’s books. I have a good friend here in Wisconsin who is a patient of Dr. Davis, and she has done very well with his wheat-free diet recommendations. I have had a sensitive blood sugar over my life (I am in my late 60′s), tending towards hypoglycemia, and have always been careful about my carbohydrate intake.

    My concerns: continued stomach distress, especially after eating, and my low weight. According to the formula in the Wheat Belly Cookbook, my BMI is 14.06, under the low limit for the Underweight category. Generally I feel well, and according to my massage therapist, my muscles and range of motion of my joints are in excellent condition. Having been on the WB diet for just a few days, I have cautious optimism that eventually I will get well. My energy is pretty good; I don’t have the sleepiness I once had during the day, and I wake up earlier in the morning than I have for years.

    The stomach and pelvic distress started in ernest about a year and a half ago, when I was going through some very emotional life changes. I will continue on the WB diet (have so far made the turkey sausage patties and the Date/Nut bread and loved them both). Over the past months I’ve experimented with all sorts of foods, adding or subtracting, but have not been able to come to any firm conclusions about cause and effect. Perhaps the WB recipes will be the answer.

    Question for Dr. Davis: how do I GAIN weight? Throughout the books, and everywhere, the emphasis is on weight LOSS. I’m concerned that restricting carbohydrates (as with the Body Ecology Diet) will contribute to more weight loss. My doctor thinks I would be better with ten more pounds. Thank you!

  2. Mark says:

    I can identify with your symptoms! I went paleo about 8 months ago and the switch has caused excess gas, constipation, and a nagging lower left quadrant pain which could be diverticulosis or it could be hip pain from RA – haven’t figured that one out. Don’t have any diarrhea issues – just plugged up. Sometimes go for about 3 days before relief. That said, I’ve had my gallbladder taken out some 15 years ago – that didn’t help with the digestion of fats which are more prevalent now that I’ve gone Paleo, thus I take Super Enzymes by NOW, but haven’t noticed any great effect yet. Am on an expensive pro/prebiotic called Prescript-Assist twice a day. Hoping it will start to fix things. Like you, I’m too slender 5’9″, 135 lbs. Lost about 10 lbs when I switched to Paleo – eat a bunch of nuts (macadamias) to get extra calories, but all the fat in nuts is also problematic. So not quite sure what to do. Thought about eating more fiber but that seems to make it worse (see Have to limit my carbs because I’m a type 1.5 diabetic, so hard to pile up those calories without adding lots of fat (I do use coconut oil, avocados, MCT oil, etc). I also started eating fermented sauerkraut and pickles by Bubbies (you can find that at Whole Foods - Eating a lot of veggies in the form of kale, lettuces, asparagus, broccoli, and powdered super greens (Amazing Grass) – ll those veggies can be pretty tough on a sensitive gut and I ponder if that is where the problem lies. Rather embarassing at times if your colon starts letting out these gurgling, groaning noises – people hopefully think it’s from my stomach and that I’m hungry! :)


    • Gail says:

      To Gingerbread and Mark,

      Thanks for your comments. With cautious optimism, I would like to say I’m just a bit better. It’s been five weeks since my post on the last day of June. About ten days ago I pressed on with daily doses of probiotics which I’ve had in my fridge for months but had to stop them because of the stomach distress I would suffer after taking them, which I did with lunch. When my instincts told me to stop this time, after about four days, the last day with two capsules, I did. Overall, I can eat more variety of foods at one time now, and generally more food at one time than I could eat even two months ago. My joints are in excellent shape; my respiration is wonderful, nose not runny or stuffed; my constipation has eased. I have good energy and am feeling more positive than I have for a long time.

      I just read over Dr. Davis’s article about bowel flora, and the time it takes for our digestive systems to “change gears” to adapt to the new wheat-free and low carb intake. I’m beginning to realize that something someone told me quite awhile ago could be true: sometimes the treatment seems worse than the disease. Patience! I made up my mind that I would act positive even if I didn’t feel that way, and so today I still remain hopeful that I will eventually regain some sort of digestive normalcy. I haven’t weighed myself for weeks, and don’t plan to for awhile. I FEEL heavier, though the mirror doesn’t show it, but I’m not going to worry about it.

      Mark, on the subject of the nuts and your concern about the fats: you might want to check Sally Fallon’s book “Nourishing Traditions” for her recipes on soaking and then drying raw nuts yourself. I’ve been experimenting with organic raw nuts I buy online from Jaffe Bros, and using Sally’s recipes. Soaking the nuts in water is said to weaken the enzyme inhibitors that are part of raw nuts that make them difficult to digest. It may not be the fat in them that’s causing the problem; it may be the fact that your digestive enzymes cannot counteract the enzyme inhibitors in the nuts. Just a thought…I still go easy on even the soaked nuts. A little goes a long way.

      • Steve George says:

        You all could be suffering from a leaky gut. Even though you’ve cut out the wheat/gluten it can take more efforts to heal your leaky gut. I’ve benefitted greatly from reading and following a very strict elimination diet after reading Digestive Health with Real Food by a RD Aglaee Jacob (I think that is her name). Read it.

  3. VibeRadiant says:

    I bought the Wheat Belly book August 29, 2013 and read it cover to cover in three days. I went gluten free the same day. I do not have CD, I am not intolerant to gluten, but not sure if I have a sensitivity or not. What scared me wheat-free was the frakenwheat descriptions in the book and in your videos. YIKES!
    I started taking a pro-biotic 8 days ago as well. I have a question about the output since starting the pro-biotic. My stool looks like it is mixed with undigested rice, but I haven’t had any rice. What is that about?

    • Dr. Davis says:

      That’s wacky.

      You may have to have your stool examined to know. A laboratory should be able to do this through your doctor.

    • KatLac says:

      Please get your stool tested. In pets, the “rice” is actually tapeworm sections.

  4. For knowing about these ideas everyone is now very happy.They are now free from worry about their belly’s extra fat.Yeah it’s really so much helpful.