This question is from a friend of mine from college, who is raising three very healthy-looking kiddos (at least judging by her Facebook pictures)!  They’re not doing GAPS, and her question isn’t necessarily coming from a GAPS-based perspective, but the answer definitely connects to the ideas behind why GAPS works … so I’m putting it under the category of a GAPS Q&A.  I hope she doesn’t mind!

Here’s her question:

Sugar feeds the bad bacteria in the gut, but does it also feed the good bacteria? If no, why not?

This is actually a really excellent question, and took me some time to wrap my head around … and then I had to do a little bit of research into the eating habits of microorganisms on wikipedia!

Here’s how I understand the issues.  Since I’m not a microbiologist or even a scientist, please take my comments with a healthy dose of skepticism — and if you are a scientist — even better, a microbiologist — and do know more about these issues, please comment!

First of all, microorganisms like candida, other yeasts, and some bacteria too, can thrive on (almost?) pure sugars (although my husband, who is a yeast expert because of his homebrewing activities, tells me that even yeasts sometimes need more complex sugars and nutrients to efficiently reproduce).  However, most of these critters, when they metabolize sugar, put off alcohol as a result, along with carbon dioxide.  This is why they use yeast to make beer, and why beer is fizzy.  But when the fizz gets produced in your belly, it can become an unpleasant situation.  Plus you don’t want to have all that alcohol being produced in your belly either.  I’m not a teetotaler by any means, but I like to be the one in control of how much alcohol is going into my body, and not leave it to the whims of my intestinal flora.

(On this note, last Thanksgiving I had my first sugary treats after having been on GAPS for only a couple of weeks.  My friends had made these treats with soy-feed-free ingredients just so I could have them, and I felt like I really ought to try them.  I only had a few bites, actually, because most of them just tasted too sweet to me.  But within an hour or two, I was DRUNK.  And I don’t think I’d had any alcohol, or no more than my usual sip or two, all night, since I was supposed to be driving.  The drunkenness was from all yeasties feasting on those sugars!  Luckily J had not had too much to drink and was able to do the driving home afterwards, because I would have had no place behind the wheel.)

Now, as I understand it, we all have these alcohol-producing bacteria and yeasts in our systems — they belong there as part of a proper balance of intestinal microflora.  However, just like any ecosystem, if given inappropriate input, certain populations can soar out of control, thereby causing damage to the habitat and depressing other populations.  Yeasts, particularly candida, thrive on sugar.  But when candida and other “bad” bacterial/yeast populations get overwhelmingly large, they can take over areas of the digestive system, and make their own little monopolies.  In fact, apparently they can even create protective shields for their little colonies that can help prevent other bacteria from colonizing their territories.  These little colonies, however, can be very harmful for the intestinal habitat — the ecosystem needs a balance of various microorganisms, and too many alcohol- and carbon dioxide-producing colonies can cause inflammatory responses on the part of our tissues.  If the colonizations get particularly intensive, the damage they cause can literally tear holes in the delicate structure which separates our food from our blood.  That’s intestinal permeability, which can allow food particles to enter the bloodstream, and result in food allergies and all sorts of other inflammation.

So do the “good” bacteria eat sugar too?  (I tried googling this question, and quickly came to the conclusion that when we’re talking about bacteria, typically the vocabulary tends not towards what bacteria eat, but what they ferment, which I think is kind of the same thing. — Or is it?)  I think the answer is, some of them might be able to eat it, but they live on many things other than pure sugar.

Moreover, for the good bacteria, unchaining and metabolically utilizing sugar is a complex process which takes a lot of energy and enzymes.  When the good bacterial populations are already fighting for their lives and territory, there already aren’t enough of them out there to do this work, and it’s hard work that they’re not naturally cut out to do 24/7.  But the yeasties are more than happy to take the sugar for their primary food and use it for their own devious purposes.

In fact, it seems like sugar would be the preferred food of candida and other “bad” bacteria.  I think of it like this:  If I were a zookeeper, and I had two non-predatory species living in one habitat — one whose natural diet preferred seeds, another whose natural diet preferred fruits and vegetables, but which could eat seeds — and I only gave both species seeds, which one would I expect to gradually take over the habitat?  The one that preferred seeds.  That’s why (I think!) pathogenic yeast populations can take over more easily on a diet that is high in sugar.  At least that’s my simplistic explanation for it.

I also understand that the species of  “good” bacteria really need a variety of nutrients to keep their populations robust.  Even if they can manage to deal with sugar on a somewhat ineffective basis, they’d much prefer a greater complexity of foods, possibly including a variety of starches, fibers, milk sugars, and various complex sugar structures.  They especially like it when they get foods that already have other friendly bacterial populations thriving in them;  even if these bacterial populations don’t survive the stomach’s acid (the debate appears to still be out on this question), the hard work of getting the fermentation started has already been done, and they can continue on with the easier work.  (At least, again, that’s how I imagine it.  I am fully confident that I could be totally off with this tangent tho.) I do know that I have heard from sources I trust (maybe Dr. Campbell-McBride?  I don’t remember now) that it is theorized that even dead probiotic bodies can be beneficial to gut flora.

So to put it succinctly, I think that maybe sugar might be able feed the good bacteria, but it’s not going to do their populations any favors.  It is, on the other hand, definitely going to pretty heftily subsidize populations of candida, which is already hanging around in the intestinal system along with everybody else in the party, and even if you don’t already have an overgrowth of it, sugar will help get one going.

I hope that answers your question, at least somewhat!  I’m really interested to hear if any readers have some better (more or less scientific) answers to help us out.  Like I said, I’m definitely not the expert, and I’m sure it’s all much more complex than I have made it out to be, so if you have some expertise in this area we’d really like to hear what you think.

(Also, if you’ve got a GAPS-, or Paleo-, or gut flora-based question, or frankly any random question, post it in the comments, and we can work on it together!  You can also email me @ yolkskefirandgristle {at} gmail *dot* com.)


GAPS Q&A Volume 1

GAPS Q&A Volume 3


Photo Credit:  walknboston on Flickr.


This post is part of Gluten-Free Wednesday, Real Food Wednesday, Works for Me Wednesday, Healthy2Day Wednesday, Pennywise Platter Thursday, Paleo Rodeo, and Simple Lives Thursday.

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