You Won't Believe What Your Gut Microbiome is Doing for You!

You may have heard about the gut microbiome. You’ve almost certainly heard from it. If you’ve ever experienced bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation or heartburn, chances are it was because something was upsetting yours. But what is the gut microbiome? What exactly does it do? What can we do to keep it happy? We’ve got the answers.

What is the Gut Microbiome?

The word microbiome refers to the vast community of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes) that we carry in our bodies. We’ve got a bunch of microbiomes on and inside our bodies – on our skin, in our nose, in our mouth, in our respiratory system and more. But the one in our gut is the most extensively studied because it affects almost every aspect of our health.

The gut microbiome lives primarily in our large intestine, sometimes known as the colon. And even though it is made up of organisms that often get a bad rap (bacteria and viruses, for example), our gut microbiome is literally keeping us healthy and happy.

How the Gut Microbiome Affects Our Health

Like many things in life, a healthy gut microbiome is all about balance and diversity. A balanced gut microbiome has a wide variety of different microbial species present. A diverse microbiome is more resilient and adaptable. This allows it to help us, its host, in several important ways.
Digestion and Metabolism: The gut microbiome helps us digest certain foods, particularly complex carbohydrates, like legumes, vegetables and whole grains, that our bodies can’t break down without it. The byproducts of this digestion are beneficial for our health and provide energy to our cells. Without the gut microbiome, there would be no point in eating all those healthy foods.

Immune System Regulation: A healthy gut microbiome trains and regulates the immune system. It helps our immune system respond to threats without overreacting (as in an autoimmune disease). A balanced gut microbiome can outcompete and prevent colonization of harmful pathogens, even though many harmful pathogens live happily there in the diverse community.

Mood and Behavior: Ever hear of the gut-brain connection or the gut-brain axis? Every week, new research is published showing ways in which the gut microbiome can influence brain health and behavior. It sends signals to the brain through something called the vagus nerve. A balanced gut microbiome can stabilize our response to stress, help combat depression and even help us make better choices. The new GLP-1 agonist weight loss drugs actually work with our gut microbiome to stimulate satiety hormones that make us feel full and resist cravings. And a new study links long-COVID brain fog to gut microbiome imbalance!

Influence on Drug Efficacy and Toxicity: A healthy gut microbiome can better metabolize certain drugs, influencing their effectiveness or potential side effects.

How to Keep Your Gut Microbiome Healthy and in Balance

It is probably no surprise that the things that contribute to our overall health like a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercise and limiting stress also have a powerful impact on a healthy gut microbiome. And of course, ultra-processed foods are a quick way to get your gut microbiota out of whack. But there are a few less obvious ways to help balance your gut microbiome.
  1. Probiotics: These are live bacteria and yeasts that can support the bacteria and other organisms in the gut microbiome. Probiotics are abundant in certain foods like yogurt, kefir and some fermented foods. If you need to, you can also get probiotics from supplements, but do some research or ask a medical provider for advice, since supplements are unregulated and vary widely in content and purity.
  2. Prebiotics: Since probiotics are live bacteria, consider prebiotics to be food for live bacteria. Prebiotics are food components that are non-digestible but feed and support the beneficial bacteria in our gut. Many great foods are full of prebiotics including onions, garlic, lentils, apples, bananas, berries and artichokes to barley name a few.
  3. Avoiding Unnecessary Antibiotics: While antibiotics are vital for treating bacterial infections, overuse or misuse can deplete beneficial bacteria. You may have heard concerns about antibiotic overuse creating strains of super-bacteria in the population at large. Well, in your body, an abundance of antibiotics will weaken the healthy bacteria in your microbiome. If you have taken antibiotics during the past six months, make sure you mention it to a medical provider before starting another course.
  4. Maintain Good Hygiene but Avoid Over-Sanitization: While it’s essential to wash your hands and maintain good personal hygiene, over-sanitizing environments and the overuse of antibacterial products can negatively impact microbial diversity.
  5. Breastfeeding: If possible and applicable, breastfeeding infants can provide beneficial bacteria and promote a healthy start to an infant’s microbiome.

The Bottom Line

There is a whole community of microorganisms in your gut working very hard to keep you healthy, calm and in good spirits. You can help them help you by leaning towards healthy habits, avoiding excess antibiotics and other anti-bacterial products and by eating some extra probiotic foods. An apple a day may or may not keep the doctor away, but it will most certainly help power the superhero in your gut!

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