Do you suffer from bloating and indigestion every time you eat? Has your doctor diagnosed you with Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Are you constantly ill with colds and flu?
If yes, your microbiome could be to blame. In fact, research suggests it can affect everything from your mood to cognitive function.
What Is the Gut Microbiome?
You may have heard the old saying “All disease begins in the gut”. What this means is that most of your immune system is in your gut—around 70 percent of your immune tissue, in fact.
Your entire gastrointestinal system is lined with organisms known as microbiota. The microbiome is the complete set of genes within those microorganisms. These genes have a major influence on how your body operates, and each person’s microbiota is unique because everyone has a different set of microorganisms.
Your microbiome is determined by everything you face in daily life—your health history, diet, age, gender, stress and all the things you come into contact with. This means your microbiome is constantly changing.
What Is Your Microbiome Made Of?
Most of the microbes that make up your microbiome are bacteria. In fact, you carry around three pounds of bacteria in your gut! Other organisms include fungi like Candida albicans, viruses, and protozoa.
That may sound like a bad thing, but it’s not—most of the organisms in your gut work together in a symbiotic relationship. All in all, your gut is home to over ten trillion microbes, most of which live in the colon.
What Does the Gut Microbiome Do?
Your microbiome plays a huge role in your health, affecting everything from how you age to how well you digest foods. It also plays a part in your ability to fight off illnesses, your ability to think clearly, and even your mood.
It Keeps You Well
Ever since you were born, the bacteria in your gut have been recognizing and fighting off harmful pathogens and viruses. They defend your body against disease and also work in harmony with helpful organisms such as probiotics (good bacteria) to improve your overall health.
It Digests Your Food
Gut bacteria are an essential part of the digestive process. Vast species of bacteria live in the intestines and colon, where they break down the food you eat through fermentation.
It Provides Nutrients
By breaking down the food you eat, microbiota produces valuable enzymes and nutrients to aid digestion and support overall health. The bacteria in your gut also produce B vitamins, vitamin K, and short-chain fatty acids. They even have an influence on how fast your metabolism burns energy.
It Makes You Happy or Sad
Research has shown there is a powerful link between your gut microbiota and your brain. This is known as the gut-brain axis. By interacting with your central nervous system, the microbiota is able to regulate certain neurotransmitters in the brain, which can affect your mood, mediate the way your body responds to stress and anxiety, and help or hinder your ability to remember things.
It Takes Care of You
When the gut microbiome is functioning properly, it works to reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, reduce the bad bacteria that cause gas and bloating, enhance the lining of the gut, reduce hypersensitivity, and even moderate the body’s stress response.
What Is an Imbalanced Microbiome?
Some people only realize the importance of their microbiome when they get sick.
Alterations in your gut bacteria can lead to all sorts of problems such as indigestion, constipation or diarrhea. If untreated, these problems can develop into illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, gastroenteritis, and serious conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.
Other disorders linked to gut dysbiosis include arthritis, asthma, autism, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, mood disorders, fatty liver disease, and even Parkinson’s disease.
How Can You Keep Your Microbiome Healthy?
Being in the gut, it makes sense that diet plays a major part in the health of your gut microbiome.
Many kinds of food, drink, and medicine can be harmful to the ‘good bacteria’ in your gut, and even kill them. This can then lead to an imbalance of bad bacteria. Fortunately, it’s quite simple to keep your microbiome in good shape.
Eat More of the Good
Certain strains of probiotics help to counteract bad gut bacteria and establish the ‘good’ bacteria needed for healthy digestion, immune support and overall wellbeing.
You can take probiotics either as a supplement or in fermented foods.
Supplements include freeze-dried bacteria in powder, capsule, or tablet form, and must be sufficiently high in numbers to have a therapeutic effect.
Fermented foods can be of both dairy and vegetable origin, and include yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Prebiotics, which are high-fiber foods that feed friendly bacteria, are also important. These include whole grains, greens, fruit and more.
Less of the ‘Bad’
Food and drink containing excess sugar, artificial ingredients or excess fat can harm or even kill off the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut.
This is also the case for medicines such as antibiotics and other drugs. Although medication is sometimes necessary and treats are fine once in a while, it’s important to counter the damage by consuming plenty of probiotic-rich foods and/or supplements.
Don’t wait until you’re ill to understand the importance of your microbiome. Aim to maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria in your gut, and you’ll reap the rewards with better digestion, fewer illnesses and a clearer mind.
Lisa Richards is a nutritionist and the creator of the Candida Diet. She has been featured on Today, Women’s Health magazine, Reader’s Digest, and Shape, among others. Through her website, theCandidaDiet.com, she explains the benefits of a low-sugar, anti-inflammatory diet.