How My Insistent Sweet Tooth Helped Uncover An Imbalance in My Gut Flora
Standing in a café with a vast array of colorful baked goods laid out in front of me led my imagination wild. My compulsion to eat almost every single baked good in front of me felt beyond my control.
I remember thinking, “This cannot be normal.”
Sound familiar? I think most of us have had those moments where our food cravings felt beyond our control. Why then does our body give us signals to eat foods, that rationally, we know we shouldn’t be eating?
Sure, there’s the whole school of thought that humans evolved to seek out sweet foods during a prehistoric era when the only sweetest foods that could be found were also the most dense in vitamins, minerals and quick usable energy — such as wild blackberries. However, this doesn’t explain why people have such different food cravings, or why some people don’t crave sweet foods at all, or even enjoy eating them.
After dealing with out-of-control sugar cravings and an array of mysterious physical symptoms for years, I decided to investigate what was going on. I began my investigation by paying attention to all sorts of strange maladies I’d previously chosen to ignore.
Some symptoms had become so familiar that I assumed I would experience them my entire life. These included sensitivities to many common foods like dairy and gluten, indigestion, and bloat after eating. While other symptoms were relatively new. I was constantly fatigued, sleeping 12–13 hours a night, and still getting sick every month.
My laundry list of health problems had become so pervasive it started to infiltrate every nook and cranny of my life. Test results showed minor nutritional deficiencies and food sensitivities across the board, despite adhering to a very healthy diet, and the beginnings of a blood sugar imbalance called hypoglycemia. I began to wonder whether my body was even absorbing any of the nutritious food I was eating?
I buried my head in scientific articles relating to everything from nutrition and microbiology to findings on mindfulness and psychology. I wanted to find the answers we were all searching for. Yet, that wasn’t even what really drove me to eventually go back to school and continue researching the microbiome.
My main motivation? I wasn’t willing to take the risk of doing nothing only to eventually be diagnosed with something more serious and have that spiral me into a life of chronic illness. I was willing to do whatever it took, to prevent that from happening.
After diving into the research, plus examining diets in other parts of the world that were not having the same onslaught of autoimmune disease as the U.S., it began to become undeniably clear there was a clear connection between my sugar cravings, my health symptoms and my gut microbiome — the vast ecosystem of microbes that inhabits our guts.
Certain Microbes Crave Sugar
There are three types of microbes that live in our gut: commensal, pathogenic, and neutral. Our commensal microbes do the vital job of promoting normal gastrointestinal function such as a speedy metabolism, high nutrient absorption and digestion.
They also help protect us from infection, regulate our metabolism, and regulate our mood with the production of neurotransmitters. In fact, 90% of the serotonin in our body, a neurotransmitter that promotes a state of natural calm and safety and reduces depression, is produced by the beneficial microbes in our gut.
These commensal microbes crave fibrous plants, herbal and medicinal teas, and starchy foods like yams and bananas. Neutral microbes don’t do anything nearly as important, however, they do help maintain an environment in which the beneficial microbes can thrive and help prevent takeover by pathogenic microbes.
Many pathogenic microbes, such as Candida, on the other hand crave refined carbohydrates such as sugar and refined flour. These microbes excrete harmful exotoxins, produce inflammation, and contribute to leaky gut syndrome.
Overgrowth of candida is an extremely common condition affecting 70 percent of the U.S population, according to molecular biologists at Rice University.
Why is this happening?
Scientists are now calling our gut microbiome our “second brain” and recent research has shed light on an epidemic of deforestation in the flora and fauna within our intestines which can create the conditions that lead to inflammation, GERD, IBS, and Leaky Gut.
Lack of Exposure to Beneficial Microbes.
In our modern world we are missing the abundance of beneficial microbes humans have evolved to rely on for hundreds of thousands of years before refrigeration, pasteurization, and sanitization entered the scene. These practices are designed to protect us from harmful bacteria which they do very well, but they also kill off the beneficial bacteria in our environment which our bodies need to stay healthy. While the average Amerindian living in the Amazon of Venezuela has close to 1,600 species of bacteria residing in their gut, the average American has roughly only 1,200 species.
These conditions set us up for reduced diversity in our gut microbes:
- Over-Medicating — with antibiotics, birth control, NSAIDs, anti-depressants, etc
- Chronic Stress — which can affect digestive secretion, gut permeability, blood flow, sensitivity, and alter bacterial composition
- Exposure to Environmental Toxins — notably pesticides, PCBs, herbicides, arsenic, BPA
- Inadequate Bacterial Acquisition at Birth — C-section birth, parents gut health and mother’s diet during pregnancy, infants transition from breast milk to adult food, etc
Once the diversity is lacking this frees up valuable real estate that pathogenic microbes can claim. This reduction in diversity of microflora impacts everything from our digestion, absorption of nutrients from our food, our immune system, our mood, and — as I discovered through my research — even our food cravings.
I am a firm believer in mitigating risk to avoid infectious disease, however, could it be that as a culture we have taken our fear of germs a bit too far?
A Biome-Friendly Path To Satisfy Sweet Cravings
Do you like to reward yourself at the end of a long day or after finishing a project with a sweet treat? There’s nothing wrong with self-care and self-reward — as long as it isn’t damaging to your gut!
Today, my self-love comes in the form of nourishing healthy sweets like chocolate avocado mousse (see recipe below). Avocado and chocolate powder are both healthy superfoods with good fats, and nearly 20 vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients- which act like prebiotics for our healthy gut flora. Satisfying to both my sweet tooth and my commensal gut flora.
Once I replaced most processed sugary foods in my diet with gut friendly sweet treats, and added in probiotics and prebiotics, which I like to call healthy microbial fertilizers and seeds, all my mysterious symptoms eventually vanished on their own.
- My Go-To Microbial fertilizers: medicinal herbal tea, green smoothies and a powdered prebiotic green drink.
- Microbial seeds: Living, raw, fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, yogurt, and kefir which naturally contain dozens of strains of beneficial flora, called probiotics.
Not only did my cravings for sugar drastically diminish after introducing microbial fertilizers and seeds into my diet, but I started to crave healthy foods like fruits and vegetables as the makeup of my gut microbes began to change.
Fast forward to today, as a mother my main motivation for keeping sweets out of the house and lots of healthy foods around is to set the stage for a healthy developing microbiome for my three-year-old daughter. The more often I snack on healthy foods, add sauerkraut to my plate, and prepare healthy sweets to have on hand instead of sugary treats, the more of an interest my toddler has in preparing and eating gut microbe friendly foods too.
Gut Friendly Chocolate Mousse
Try making your own naturally sweet, gut friendly, chocolate mousse at home following my recipe below.
- 2 avocados , ripe, peeled and pitted
- 3/4 cup organic coconut milk (any dairy-free milk will work as well)
- ¼ cup raw honey
- 2 TBS maple syrup
- 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- Fresh berries
- Cacao nibs
- Chopped salted almonds
- Place all ingredients in a food processor.
- Blend thoroughly until smooth.
- Refrigerate for at least an hour
- Garnish with berries, cacao nibs, and chopped nuts
This article is based on my book A Gut Feeling: Conquer Your Sweet Tooth by Tuning Into Your Microbiome. Follow me on Instagram @HeatherAnneWise and learn more at HeatherAnneWise.com.