Gut Health and the Microbiome

Our bodies are home to roughly 100 trillion microscopic organisms. Just as different animals and plants live in different regions of the world, communities of microbes, or microbiomes, inhabit different parts of our bodies.

Like a vibrant coral reef, a healthy person’s gut is a busy and thriving ecosystem of hundreds of species of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi and viruses. Emerging research is discovering the valuable role the gut microbiome plays in metabolism, immune response, mental health, and more.

Over the last 60 years, there has been a marked increase in chronic autoimmune, autoinflammatory, metabolic and neurologic conditions. Scientists predict that these conditions will affect 1 in 4 individuals by 2025. Many of these chronic conditions are marked by dysbiosis, which refers to a lack of diversity or overgrowth of certain microbial species in the gut. The following is a small list of conditions with associated gut dysbiosis:

  • Allergies and asthma
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Anxiety
  • Autism
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Various cancers

The microbiome changes in response to the foods we eat, the products we use, and the medications we take. Stress, exercise and sleep habits also cause changes in the microbiome. New understanding of the microbiome’s role in a wide range of conditions is opening new frontiers in medical research.

Emerging research is discovering the valuable role the gut microbiome plays in metabolism, immune response, mental health, and more.

What Does Our Gut Microbiome Do?

The gut microbiome forms a protective layer in the intestinal system. Our microbes:

  • Play an essential role in digestion, breaking down foods into digestible substrates
  • Protect us from harmful pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms)
  • Protect us from carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) and break down ingested toxins
  • Interact with and shape our immune system
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Synthesize essential vitamins, amino acids and enzymes, such as the B vitamins and vitamin K
  • Produce neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which impact mental health, mood and behavior

What are Probiotics and Prebiotics?

Probiotics are healthful strains of live microbes. Probiotic bacteria are found in fermented foods, such as yogurt or kombucha. Supplements, such as capsules containing live bacteria or fungi, are sold in pharmacies and health food stores.

Prebiotics are food for probiotics. Prebiotics are plant materials that contain indigestible fiber and resistant starch, which feed the microbes in our large intestines. These plant fibers come from a long list of plant foods, from asparagus to yams.

How Do I Take Care of my Gut Microbes?

The microbiome is very sensitive to environmental conditions. Studies have shown many lifestyle factors influence our microbiome balance and diversity. Research shows that even a short-term diet change can significantly alter the microbiome. Just as different animals eat different types of foods, so do our microbes. Eating a wide variety of plant-based foods supports varying populations of health-promoting microbes. There are thousands of edible plants in the world. However, the majority of our plant-based foods come from only 12 crops. Intentionally adding a wide variety of vegetables and other plant-based foods will cause a healthful increase in microbial diversity.

How to promote a healthy microbiome:

Colorectal Cancer Screening

The American Cancer Society recommends annual screening for colorectal cancer beginning at 45 years of age. Those with a strong family history or other risk factors may need to begin screening earlier. Several screening options are available, such as stool-based tests or colonoscopy. Talk with your physician about the option that is right for you and understand what your medical benefit covers for these types of screenings.

Feed your microbes! Increase plant-based foods, and decrease animal-based foods like meat and dairy.
Diversify your diet. Try adding nuts, legumes, and a rainbow of vegetables to your diet.
Avoid sugar, which feeds pathogens in the gut and shifts the microbiota to an unhealthy balance.
Avoid highly processed foods, which often lack nutrients and fiber, and use agents to inhibit bacterial growth.
Add fresh herbs and spices to your foods. Even small amounts of ginger, turmeric, and basil can help grow healthful strains of gut microbes.
Get dirty! Outdoor activities, such as playing sports, planting a garden, and interacting with your furry pets are shown to increase microbial diversity.
Eat fermented foods, such as homemade sauerkraut or yogurt, which contain live cultures.
Avoid exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.
Avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics and other medications. Discuss with your doctor.
Exercise and reduce stress.
Avoid smoking and limit alcohol use.
Avoid artificial sweeteners.

Take care of your gut microbes, and they will take care of you!