Your gut is the powerhouse of your body. Yep, those long, winding organs that make up your digestive system are pretty important for making everything run correctly. Did you know the state of your digestive organs can affect your mood, your athletic performance and even your lifespan?
Biotics and Biomes: How You Can Manage Your Gut Health
In depth research is just beginning to map the connections between the types and levels of different bacteria to the lowered or increased association with diseases like certain cancers, Chrohn's, heart disease, etc. If you have a history of disease in your family, or you’ve personally had a gut issues, it’s worth gaining a deeper understanding of what your microbiome is, how healthy and balanced yours personally is, and the myriad of factors that affect long-term gut health.
If you’ve ever gotten an upset stomach before a particularly stressful event, perhaps it won’t surprise you that the gut and brain have a powerful connection.
Your brain can send signals to your gut (such as, “Eeek, I’m scared to go on stage and speak in front of all of these people!”) resulting in butterflies, nausea, or more severe symptoms. But your gut can also send signals to your brain. Together, your gut and brain form a constantly updating feedback loop, and by improving your gut health, you can improve your overall brain function—and Harvard studies have found psychological treatment can improve digestive problems.
If you’re a follower of the latest health and wellness trends, you’ll know gut health is a trending topic. Your neighbor has started brewing kombucha, and maybe your mom is on a new probiotic regimen. But how exactly do our digestive systems work? And what is the best way to improve overall gut health?
Here, we’ll dive into how the human microbiome works, with a special focus on your gut microbiome. We’ll explore what causes imbalances in gut health. And then, we’ll take a tour of how different lifestyle choices and gut-health agents, including probiotics and prebiotics, affect your microbiome and overall health.
Gut bacteria and its impact on the body
Did you know the human body contains more bacteria than it does human cells? You read that right. Human cells number between 50 and 100 trillion; the human microbiome, by contrast, contains an estimated 75 to 200 trillion bacterial organisms—and that’s not even all of the microorganisms that live on and in our bodies! In addition to bacteria, the human microbiome includes a diverse collection of fungi, archaea, protozoans, and viruses.
Your microbiome is intimately connected with every other part of your body, and it’s incredibly diverse. Your skin, lungs, urinary and digestive tracts, mouth and nose—each of these systems contain hundreds of microorganisms, thriving and surviving in sync with the rest of your body. Each part of your body has its own bacterial ecosystem, where bacteria come and go, live and die, often in ways that differ spectacularly from one part of your body to the next. For example, a study showed that out of the 150 bacterial species common to the palm surface, only 17% are found on both hands.
The system of foreign matter that makes up the human microbiome has evolved alongside our bodies and usually operates symbiotically with us. For example, some of the microorganisms that live in our gut help break down food and fend off harmful bacteria. But sometimes, especially in the face of sudden or prolonged stress on the body, the bacteria and microorganisms inside our bodies can revolt, causing anything from minor digestive issues to chronic diseases.
This imbalance of microorganisms, which mainly occurs in your gut, is called dysbiosis and occurs when the symbiotic relationship between our bodies and our microbiomes is disrupted.
Reasons for microbiome imbalance
What causes gut dysbiosis? A study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences lists several reasons your gut might be unbalanced:
- Antibiotic use
- Illness, resulting in a weakened immune system
- Poor dietary or lifestyle habits
Antibiotics are one of the biggest reasons for gut dysbiosis because they are indiscriminate—they kill pathogens and bad bacteria along with helpful bacteria. One study showed that antibiotic usage had significant impacts on one-third of gut bacteria.
Unhealthy diets, particularly the Standard American Diet (SAD), are another huge reason for gut dysbiosis. Feeding your body a diet high in sugar and processed foods can cause unhealthy bacteria to thrive without providing the nutrients necessary for helpful bacteria, resulting in a gut imbalance and causing you to feel pretty icky.
Genetically modified foods (GMOs) can also impact your gut health. Glyphosate, the herbicide used on genetically modified crops, has been shown to inhibit helpful bacteria while increasing the amount of pathogens in your gut, causing dysbiosis.
Stress, aging, and illness can also result in a bacterial imbalance by reducing bacterial diversity and creating hostile conditions in which it’s difficult for good bacteria to thrive.
Balance your gut with probiotic and prebiotic foods
It turns out the old maxim, “You are what you eat,” really is true, to a microscopic level. The foods you put into your body can have powerful impacts on your microbiome and overall health. To fix gut dysbiosis and create a healthy bacterial balance, physicians recommend starting with food first. Small changes to your diet can create an environment where good bacteria can thrive. Try these suggestions:
- Eat whole foods. Increase your intake of whole fruits and veggies, and avoid processed and packaged foods as much as possible.
- Reduce your sugar intake. Too much sugar creates a feeding ground for bad bacteria. Instead, try low-sugar substitutes, such as fresh fruit or monk fruit sweetener.
- Incorporate probiotic-rich foods. These foods are rich in good bacteria and can help with digestion and prevent gut inflammation. Try yogurt or kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi, kombucha, or any other fermented, unpasteurized food.
- Eat prebiotic foods, too. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates—fibers that can’t be digested by your body, but that essentially create a feeding ground in your gut for good bacteria and help with digestion. They include foods like garlic, bananas, asparagus, apples, whole grains, and legumes.
Know that gut health is not merely about food! Healthy lifestyle choices, including avoiding stress, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly all contribute to a happy gut. If your diet is in order and your lifestyle is healthy but you’re still suffering from digestive issues, however, then it may be time to add some supplements to your diet. Probiotics and prebiotics come in whole-food form, but there are also many engineered supplements meant to provide an extra boost. Ask your doctor or dietician to recommend a probiotic supplement that’s right for you.
Great gut health means more than avoiding an upset stomach. Taking care of your microbiome is a way of taking care of your whole body so you can run faster, live longer, think more clearly, and straight-up feel better, all the time.