One of the most exciting and revolutionary topics in health right now is also one of the least sexy: We’re talking about the bacteria that live in our digestive tracts — what science types often call the gut microbiome.
Our bodies play host to trillions of these critters, and they make up a mini-ecosystem that helps us break down the food we eat and absorb its nutrients. At least, that’s all we thought the microbiome did. But it may be much more.
It sounds like something out of an alien movie, but it’s proving to be remarkably important to our digestion, out health, and even our skin.
The balance of good and more harmful bacteria in your gut changes all the time, often due to things like stress, diet, medications, and pregnancy. The bacteria come from what we eat and our environment.
So, what do gut bacteria affect anyway? We’re learning that it’s a lot more than we ever thought. Even things that happen when you’re a baby can affect your microbiome throughout your life.
They keep the harmful bacteria at bay
Though we still don’t know all of the mechanisms behind it, good bacteria can crowd out and reduce bad pathogens in the body. Having a good, diverse mix of bacteria in your body seems to be one facet of the immune system.
They affect your cardiovascular system and other organs
Certain types of harmful bacteria are involved in making a chemical called TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide) which seems to help cause cholesterol buildup.
There’s research saying that our biggest organ, the skin, is also in play. The relationship to bacteria can be a factor in conditions like acne, psoriasis, rosacea, and atopic dermatitis.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You name the organ, there’s likely a gut bacteria connection.
Your microbiome talks to your brain
They may affect obesity
Many of these connections are not yet well understood and research is ongoing to determine causes and correlation.
There are some signs that your gut microbiome may be off-kilter. Here are some to watch for, though many overlap with other conditions (talk with your doctor to make sure):
Taking advantage of the many benefits of diverse, healthy gut bacteria isn’t as easy as eating yogurt every day — but it’s not much harder, either.
1. Fill up on fiber
Soluble fiber (which is found in foods like oats, lentils, beans, onions, garlic, and fruit) has prebiotics that feeds the good bacteria and keeps ’em happy.
2. Tame your sweet tooth
Eating a lot of sugar can mess with your gut microbiome and cause issues like chronic inflammation and a weakened immune system. Focusing on unprocessed foods without a lot of added sugar is your best bet to keep things in balance.
3. Get checked for food intolerances
If gas, bloating, or other stomach issues are plaguing you, it may help to have your doctor test for food intolerances. You can then avoid foods that can trigger these problems and get your gut back on track.
4. Be careful about antibiotics
Downing antibiotics can be a necessary evil when you get a bacterial infection, but they can kill off massive amounts of both helpful and harmful gut bacteria (“antibiotic” is literally the opposite of “probiotic”).
Exposure to antibiotics at a young age is also suspected to have a lifelong affect on a number of conditions including obesity later in life.
Make sure you’re only taking antibiotics when you definitely need them and never for things like viral infections, which are not affected by them.
5. Get plenty of sleep
A healthy sleep cycle is both dependent upon and associated with the gut microbiome. They need each other to function at their best. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule will help your gut and almost everything else in your body.
6. Eat lots of fermented foods
Fermented foods go through a process that uses bacteria and yeast to break down sugars. Foods like yogurt, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi are jam-packed with beneficial bacteria — just make sure the jars say they contain live cultures.
7. Consider probiotic supplements
The probiotic supplement industry is pretty untamed and not well-regulated, so make sure you use high quality brands that are recommended by your doctor or dietician.
The benefits of probiotic supplements are disputed and can take a long time to start working.
It’s no exaggeration that practically every facet of your health is affected by an invisible alien ecosystem in your gut.
It’s wild, but also important. Researchers are working to better understand all of these mechanisms. What we do know is that having a happy gut environment may be a huge key to health.
Luckily, tending to your gut doesn’t have to be complicated. Eat a balanced and nutrient-dense diet that includes fiber, fruits, and veggies, and try some fermented foods. Your whole body will thank you.