The bacteria in our gut has become a very hot topic in both the eye of the public and under the microscope of researchers. Doctors and scientists are beginning to realize that our gut flora is responsible for more actions in the body than we ever imagined, and research shows that even the bacteria in our gut have their own microbial communities living within them.
Our microbiome is constantly working to protect us.
For now, let's keep it simple and focus on the best ways to keep our own gut flora happy so that they can help us in the following areas:
1. Vitamin synthesis and nutrient absorption
One of the earliest known functions of gut microbes is the production of vitamin K, which is essential for blood clotting and healthy blood circulation. Bacteria live in the gut, feed off of our undigested food, and in turn produce vitamin K for the body to use. The bacteria also help to produce B vitamins, which help the body generate and maintain energy. Studies also point out that these microbes help promote the absorption of antioxidants, which are important compounds with anti-inflammatory effects in the body.
2. Immune system regulation
Research shows that our gut flora is responsible for the development and regulation of the immune system—80 percent of it, to be more exact! Babies born via C-section have a much different colonization of gut bacteria than babies born vaginally, and therefore their immune system development is different. Autoimmune disorders like IBS, type 1 diabetes, lupus, celiac disease, and rheumatoid arthritis are also associated with a dysfunctional microbiome.
3. Mental health and brain function
One of the most profound ways the microbiome affects our well-being is by assisting in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter and hormone responsible for moods and feelings of positivity. Gut microbes work in conjunction with human cells in the gastrointestinal tract to produce over 90 percent of the body's serotonin. The gut flora may influence the body's stress response, sleep regulation, and even pain sensitivity. More research is needed to understand the complex relationship between the gut and the brain.
4. Weight status
Research shows that the microbiome of obese individuals is markedly different from those of lean individuals. And studies in mice show that when changes are made to the microbiome in mice, weight status is greatly affected; gut microbes also seem to have the ability to influence appetite regulation.
Diet, stress, sleep, exercise, and environment all affect the health of your microbiome. Diet plays a huge role in the type of bacteria that colonize in the gut, affecting everything from weight to mood, energy levels, and immune health.
We should nourish our gut bacteria so that they continue to nourish us.
1. Probiotic-rich foods
These foods include yogurt, kefir, kimchee, sauerkraut, miso, kombucha, and other cultured and fermented foods. Probiotic-rich foods help to boost the microbiome by increasing the number of bacteria in the gut. The gut is colonized by over 400 different species of bacteria. It is important to eat a variety of cultured foods as a means of ingesting a variety of bacteria strains.
2. Prebiotics and fiber
One of the best and easiest ways to increase the health of your microbiome is through fructooligosaccharides and galactooligosaccharides—also known as fiber. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that humans cannot digest because we lack the enzymes to break it down. However, our gut bacteria have these necessary enzymes and can break down and utilize fiber for their own energy and health. Prebiotics help increase the absorption of calcium and magnesium, minerals essential for bone health. Good sources of prebiotics, the food for your gut flora, include onions, garlic, legumes, oatmeal, bananas, apples, berries, leeks, leafy greens, and whole-wheat grains. Consider combining cultured foods with foods rich in prebiotics for a synergistic effect.
3. Avoiding antibiotics
Antibiotics are lifesaving and they absolutely have a time and a place in our health. However, antibiotics tend to be overprescribed especially for things such as the common cold, which is a viral infection and untreatable with antibiotics. A course of antibiotics not only kills the "bad" bacteria causing the infection but also the "good" bacteria that is beneficial to our health. Antibiotics can throw off the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut. It can take months for the microbiome to rebound and rebuild after a course of antibiotics. And this is where No. 4 comes into play.
Probiotic supplements are a great way to boost gut bacteria variety and amount. However, not all supplements are created equal. Look for a probiotic supplement that is refrigerated and contains at least 30 different strains and 50 billion live cultures. This may seem like a lot, but the gut has trillions of bacteria living in it. Also, not all the probiotics in a supplement will survive the gastrointestinal environment on their way to making a home in the large intestine.
Remember that you are unique, and so is your microbiome.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the health of your gut flora. An individual's microbiome is as unique as their fingerprint. More research is needed to continue to answer questions on how bacteria, as separate living organisms, can affect the health and well-being of their host. However, we do know that a diet high in fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as consuming cultured and fermented foods can greatly affect the health of the microbes inhabiting your gut. Nourishing these microbes is a vital part of optimizing well-being—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Consult with a registered dietitian or physician for personalized health advice.