by Dr. Will Cole
Working with patients all around the world, I have been seeing a common theme: It’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to lose weight. Something has changed about our world – the obesity epidemic continues to worsen. A full 38 percent of the U.S. population is technically considered obese, and 33 percent of us are overweight. Put those numbers together and well over half of the U.S. population hovers well above normal weight range. Projections suggest those numbers are only expected to rise, so it’s clear that what we’re doing now isn’t working. Despite having the most gyms, workout videos, diets, weight loss pills, and potions, we are the sickest most overweight generation in human history.
So what’s the deal with weight gain?
There are many theories about the cause, or causes, of the obesity epidemic, and I have written abut many of them, including the impact of stress, hormonal imbalances, toxins, viruses, poor diet, and inflammation, but one often overlooked factor (and a new focus of scientific research) is the microbiome.
Essentially, the microbiome is a universe of beings living inside of you, composed of trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other critters that are not technically part of you. Sound gross? Maybe, but you wouldn’t be alive without them. Your immune system, brain, and mood are all largely controlled by your microbiome, and we are constantly discovering more connections between gut health and weight.
We live in an intricate and complex symbiotic relationship with the creatures inside of us, and it is my experience that people are often unable to lose weight until they deal with imbalances within this gastrointestinal universe. Here are the ways your gut can make it seem impossible to lose weight:
1. Bacterial imbalance
Think of your microbiome as a big city. The “microbiome metropolis” is filled with different “cities” or bacterial colonies. The more diverse the cities are, the better are your health and metabolism. Research has found that people who are overweight or obese have lower microbiome diversity. The types of bacteria and fungi you have also matter – people with weight loss resistance also tend to have a lower amount of Bacteroides, Verrucomicrobia, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, and a higher amount of Actinobacteria and Firmicutes.
2. Gut-sleep connection
Your sleepy-time hormone (melatonin) is made in the brain – but there’s also a lot of it in your gut! And the health of the bacteria in your gut is essential for healthy melatonin levels. In short, an unhealthy microbiome will mess up your sleep. The problem? Losing out of sleep can make fat cells 30 percent less able to play nicely with your fat-burning hormone, insulin.
3. Short-chain fatty acid levels
Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) get made in your gut as a result of bacterial fermentation. In other words, bacteria feed off of the food you eat and they make SCFAs as a by-product. These fatty acids, are important because they prevent gut problems like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Research is finding that our SCFAs also promote weight loss, and all three types of SCFAs (acetate, propionate, and butyrate) decrease cravings.
4. Leaky gut syndrome
Studies have shown that people with markers of leaky gut syndrome also had increased levels of fat and a larger waist circumference, which suggests that intestinal permeability can lead to increased fat around our organs and can contribute to metabolic syndrome. Leaky gut syndrome can also lead to increased blood-brain barrier permeability (leaky brain), and this low-grade inflammation can further complicate losing weight by messing with hormone balance.
Your gut health game plan:
What can you do to correct these microbiome-based problems? Here are three powerful strategies:
1. Test your gut
You don’t have to be experiencing gut symptoms to have an underlying gut problem. By running functional medicine labs to assess for leaky gut syndrome, SIBO, candida overgrowth, and short-chain fatty acids, we can find out what’s really going on in your gut, to more precisely target your treatment.
2. Increase your bacterial diversity
Probiotics are a great tool to balance your microbiome, and a combination of bifidobacteria, enterococcus, and lactobacillus has been shown to have a positive effect on small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. They encourage healthy bacterial populations. I am also a fan of soil-based probiotics to further broaden the varieties of microbes in your gut. Eating a variety of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and coconut kefir is another great way to introduce different bacterial strains, to promote healthy bacterial diversity.
3. Optimize conditions for short-chain fatty acid levels
SCFAs are made when you eat healthy prebiotic and high-fiber foods. Load up on nutrient-dense leafy greens like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and watercress, as well as other super plant foods. To increase the fat-burning butyrate, I also suggest bringing Hi-Maize Resistant Starch into your diet to boost butyrate in your large intestine. Hydroxymethyl butyrate can also be supplemented.
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