We rarely associate the word bacteria with something positive. The term doesn’t often conjure up thoughts of mental clarity, a healthy body weight, reduced inflammation, emotional well-being, and long-term health – but it should! Bacteria is critical to our health and well-being.
Our bodies are full of bacteria that make up our gut microbiome which can be in a healthy or unhealthy state. It is all about balance, and when it comes to your gut microbiome, you have the power to tip the scales. Your gut microbiome consists of all the viruses, bacteria, and fungi from entry to exit. These are considered microorganisms or microbes, and we have over 100 trillion in our bodies! In fact, 90% of the cells in our body are microbial. As the name suggests, the gut microbiome consists of the microbes in our gut. There are over 1000 different species and between 7000 and 36000 strains of microbes in your intestine. Together, all these microbes can weigh up to 5lbs.
We often associate bacteria with infection and assume that it’s bad for us; however, we also need bacteria for our health. Different species of bacteria play different roles in our bodies. For example, research has shown that a large variety of gut bacteria enhances our immune system, reduces obesity, and lessens symptoms of depression.
Without your gut microbiome, you likely wouldn’t survive. From birth, our gut microbiome has affected vital bodily functions like our immune system, digestion, and the central nervous system. However, too many unhealthy microbes or an imbalance of healthy and harmful microbes can cause an unhappy gut. An unhappy gut can cause serious health issues, whereas a healthy gut will help ensure your body is functioning as it should.
When you have a healthy gut, you have a healthy balance of microbes and biochemicals. As a result, you are more likely to feel more energetic, become sick less often, maintain a healthy weight, and have increased mental clarity and better emotional well-being. Further, you are more likely to experience long-term health.
When we have an unhealthy gut, we experience an imbalance of metabolites and gut flora. As a result, we lack the necessary microbe diversity and, therefore, may experience health consequences such as diabetes, autoimmune conditions, neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s), obesity, anxiety, depression, and chronic health issues like cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer.
There are warning signs of an unhealthy gut that help us identify an issue before it becomes a more serious health concern. One of the most common signs of gut issues is an upset stomach. When your gut bacteria is unbalanced, you are more likely to experience heartburn, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
Another warning sign of an unhealthy gut is sleep disturbances. You could have an imbalance if you have insomnia or trouble falling asleep on your buckwheat pillow each night. Serotonin, a hormone that affects sleep and mood, is produced in the gut. When your gut isn’t functioning as it should, it can disrupt the body’s serotonin, disrupting sleep.
Changes in your physical appearance can also be an indication there is an issue with your gut. For example, the skin condition eczema is related to a damaged gut caused by inflammation. This can happen when a person has food allergies or a poor diet. Their body then "leaks” specific proteins which irritate the skin, causing skin conditions. Your weight can also change. When you lose or gain weight without changing your diet, it may be a sign of gut issues. When your gut is imbalanced, it doesn’t absorb nutrients as well and can impair your ability to store fat and regulate blood sugar.
As the saying goes, you are what you eat. That means if you continuously eat unhealthy food, you too can become unhealthy. When you eat poorly, the following two things happen:
- Your gut microbiome is damaged, and the composition changes, which causes an inability to breakdown nutrients properly
- You don’t get the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.
You can also damage your gut health by taking antibiotics. Antibiotics wipe out the bacteria in your body, including healthy bacteria. This wipes out your gut microbes, which do not always rebuild. Stress and living in a septic environment can also result in an imbalance and negatively affect your gut health. Fortunately, there’s good news - if you have damaged your gut, there are things you can do to improve it. There are many easy ways to improve your gut health, including diet, supplements, getting enough sleep, exercise, and meditation.
Eating for gut health.
First, start with your diet. Eating a healthy, clean, diverse diet can significantly improve your gut health. If you are looking to boost your gut microbiome, you should include the following in your diet:
- Eat whole grains: Whole grains have lots of fiber and gut-healthy carbs. They also contain polyphenols that stimulate healthy bacterial growth. Several studies have shown that whole grains promote the development of lactobacilli, Bifidobacteria, and Bacteroidetes.
- Eat prebiotic-rich foods: Prebiotics also stimulate healthy bacteria growth. These are primarily complex carbs or fiber that human cells cannot digest. Instead, they are digested by gut bacteria which breaks them down for fuel. Foods like bananas, oats, apples, and asparagus are rich in prebiotics.
- Eat a plant-based diet: Research has found that a plant-based or vegetarian diet can benefit the gut microbiome due to increased fiber content. A 2013 study found that a vegetarian diet led to lower levels of disease-causing bacteria in individuals with obesity. It also caused weight loss and lowered cholesterol levels and inflammation. That said, it is essential to note that researchers have not yet distinguished whether the improvement in gut health is caused by a lack of animal products or by an increase in other foods.
- Eat fermented foods: Fermented foods have gut-healthy bacteria called Lactobacilli, which reduces the presence of disease-causing species. For example, research has shown that those who regularly eat yogurt have more lactobacilli in their intestines and less Enterobacteriaceae, a bacteria associated with inflammation.
- Eat a variety of different foods: Eating a variety of foods will create a diverse microbiome, which is precisely what you want for a healthy gut. In addition, studies have found that eating different food types gives you a more diverse microbiome. For example, incorporate many fiber-rich foods like fruit, legumes, and beans as they promote Bifidobacteria growth.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners can increase blood sugar, which increases the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut.
- Limit junk food: Fast food contains excessive salt and sugar that can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and decrease the good bacteria. Tobacco and alcohol can also disrupt your gut microbiota.
- Eat foods with polyphenols: Polyphenols are compounds with many health benefits, including reducing inflammation, oxidative stress, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure. We need a healthy gut to use these as cells don’t digest them. Instead, they are digested by gut bacteria. Foods rich in polyphenols include dark chocolate, green tea, blueberries, and broccoli.
Practice mindfulness Meditation
When you become stressed, your body responds with a fight-or-flight response. This triggers catecholamine production and corticotropin-releasing hormone, which disrupts the gut microbiome. This stress response is suppressed when you meditate on your meditation cushion, and you can maintain a healthy gut.
Get enough sleep
As you sleep, your digestive system is hard at work repairing and rebuilding tissues. To do so, it needs to slow down and have the time to do this. This means it can’t be tied up digesting a late-night meal. If you aren’t spending enough time on your buckwheat pillow at night and become sleep-deprived, your immune system can trigger an excess of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which causes inflammation. Inflammation can cause tummy troubles like IBS, ulcerative colitis, or constipation.
Taking prebiotic and probiotic supplements
Prebiotics promote healthy bacteria growth, while probiotics are live bacteria that restore the gut to a healthy state. You can supplement your diet with prebiotic or probiotic supplements. However, not all supplements are equal, and poor-quality ones will not have the intended effect. Our probiotics include Lactobacillus, Acidophilus, Bifidobacterium Lactis, and more, which are also known to combat stress. Stress is the number one cause of sleep issues, so by reducing stress, you can also sleep better!
Recent research has shown that exercise positively affects our gut microbiome, independent of diet. For example, a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that movement causes alterations in the gut microbiome, specifically an increase in short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) levels, creating a happy gut.
Your gut microbiome is critical to your health and well-being. When healthy, it increases performance, decreases sickness, and improves recovery time, as well as reducing the risk of severe health issues. So if you are looking to improve your health, you need to listen to your gut and improve your gut health!