Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Gut and the Great Barrier Reef

R.H. Bennett Ph.D.
Applied Life Sciences LLC

The cells that make up the gut lining have much in common with barrier reefs.
A barrier reef that lies offshore on a high number of tropical islands is a grand scale example of how the cells lining the gut function for health and wellness.

Some of you may be saying what, that is nuts!  Sure talking about tropical reefs is a stretch and the skin might be a much better example.   The problem with the skin analogy is the outer layer is dead.  Why did I choose the reef analogy?  It is simple; I am an ocean person.  There is salt water in my veins, and the oceans are the lifeblood of our planet. More metaphorically realistic is the fact that a tropical reef is a thriving ecosystem with thousands of species of plants and animals living symbiotically and together providing great benefits to the island.  Does this make sense now microbiome fans?

One of the myriad benefits, or services as ecologists call them, is the reef is a mechanical barrier that protects islands from the ravages of the cyclone driven surf.  If it were not for the reefs, many small low lying islands could be washed away in a big storm.   This mechanical barrier is very alive.

This barrier reef has integrity. It is whole and complete. It keeps the bigger predators out and provides a calm environment so that life may thrive.  When untoward events, such excessive warming of the oceans and pollution from nearby town enters the inner waters of the reef, the corals of the reef suffer and die.

It is ironic that very high body temperatures from fever or Heat Stroke damage the cells that line the gut and it may dangerously leak.  The visual analogy may look something like this.  Both the reef and the gut may lose barrier integrity.  The damage to the system is proportional to the leakage that occurs.

The gut cell lining is a critical barrier as well.  Consider this, the contents of your gut are actually outside of your body.  If the gut contents had free access to the abdominal cavity, you would be extremely sick and septic. This is what happens when an appendix bursts.  Without emergency surgery, the prospects for death would be almost certain.

The Western high sugar and high-fat diet will feed undesirable bacteria naturally present in the microbiome.  We call these pathobionts.  They are not a problem until the gut ecosystem like the reef ecosystem gets out a balance.

Why the gut barrier is so central to health and wellness

About a decade ago, I heard people talking about "leaky gut."  I dismissed it as nonsense.  If our gut leaked, I reasoned we would be in dire straights as if an errant arrow penetrated.  Now we know that these leaks are microscopic, not immediately life-threatening, but very significant. 

Consider the diagram above.  The "Great Barrier" cells insulted by bacterial toxins separate ever so slightly.  They open sufficiently to allow invasion of bacterial metabolites (toxins) and a few bacteria to penetrate and they, in turn, induce inflammation.  Inflammatory mediators, unbalance the immune system while allowing inflammation chemicals to circulate throughout the entire body.   This is the fundamental failure that may preclude some very major upsets to health and wellness.  Those challenges may not show up as signs and symptoms of something serious for months to years.  The important thing to understand is that this subtle "leaky gut" also known as dysbiosis can be the beginnings of some horrible outcomes.

The importance of HATS for the Great Barrier Gut.

It is now undisputed, the adult microbiome in the Western World is usually a very disturbed ecology.   The Rejuvenation and Rehabilitation (R and R) of our microbiome, our gut ecosystem barrier is possible.

The R and R of the Gut Barrier

1.   First and foremost correct the diet.  Reduce sugars and simple starches by 90%.  The health benefits go way beyond just the microbiome.

2.  Add lots of soluble and insoluble fiber to the diet.  Some of these are known prebiotics (beneficial bacteria food). We have a good notion of insoluble fiber like that of celery and cabbage.  Insoluble fiber prevails in apples, oatmeal, strawberries and many other fruits.

3.  Take HATS (Human Adapted Targeted Symbiotics).  There are some products on the market that meet this purpose.   HATS means we know from research that these bacteria originally came from humans and they can colonize and grow in the gut.  The probiotic has targeted functional benefits like the production of specific organic acids.  Symbiotic is two or more probiotics that work together for their mutual benefit.

You can expect that within a week or two the integrity of the gut barrier will improve.  There are select blood tests your health care provider may suggest if you're looking for an objective measure. (There will be more on testing in upcoming blogs).

Please consider this.   The Great Gut Barrier is under assault, just as all the coral reefs on our Oceans Planet.   Once a reef is dead, the invasive algae swoop in like vultures on a carcass.  Once the gut barrier fails on a grand scale, one of many clinical diseases may result, and those effects may not be treatable or cured.

If we want to protect our barrier reefs and our gut barriers, we must get into action now!


Bron, Peter A., et al. "Can probiotics modulate human disease by impacting intestinal barrier function?." British Journal of Nutrition 117.1 (2017): 93-107.

O'Hara, Ann M., and Fergus Shanahan. "The gut flora as a forgotten organ." EMBO reports 7.7 (2006): 688-693.

Ohland, Christina L., and Wallace K. MacNaughton. "Probiotic bacteria and intestinal epithelial barrier function." American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology298.6 (2010): G807-G819.

Things we can do to protect our reefs

Nature Conservancy

1 comment:

  1. Great analogy Dr. Bennett, it really makes it a lot easier to understand.