One of the most exciting and revolutionary health topics right now is also one of the least glamorous: we’re talking about the bacteria living in our digestive tract, which scientists often refer to as the intestinal microbiome.
Our bodies harbor trillions of these creatures, forming a mini-ecosystem that helps break down the food we eat and absorb its nutrients. At least, that’s what we used to think the microbiome did. But it can be much more.
It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it’s proving to be crucial for our digestion, health, and even our skin.
Intestinal bacteria are involved in everything
The balance of good and more harmful bacteria in the gut changes all the time, often due to factors like stress, diet, medications, and pregnancy. Bacteria come from what we eat and our environment.
So, what do intestinal bacteria affect anyway? We’re learning that it’s much more than we thought. Even things that happen when you’re a baby can impact your microbiome throughout your life.
They keep harmful bacteria in check.
Although we don’t know all the mechanisms behind this yet, good bacteria can displace and reduce bad pathogens in the body. Having a good and diverse mix of bacteria in your body seems to be a facet of the immune system.
They affect your cardiovascular system and other organs.
Certain types of harmful bacteria are involved in producing a chemical called TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide) that seems to contribute to cholesterol accumulation.
The microbiome also has links to coronary artery disease and other cardiovascular conditions. There are also connections to the central nervous and endocrine systems.
Research suggests that our largest organ, the skin, is also in play. The relationship with bacteria may be a factor in conditions such as acne, psoriasis, rosacea, and atopic dermatitis.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Name an organ, and there’s likely a connection with intestinal bacteria.
Your microbiome talks to your brain
Researchers believe the gut can affect mood, anxiety levels, cognition, and pain. It may even be involved in conditions like depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, and more.
They can affect obesity
Scientists are beginning to suggest that maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria may play a role in preventing or easing obesity and associated metabolic disorders.
Many of these connections are not well understood, and research is ongoing to determine causes and correlations.
Signs of an unhealthy gut
There are some signs that your intestinal microbiome may be imbalanced. Here are a few to watch out for, although many overlap with other conditions (consult your doctor to be sure):
• stomach issues like gas, bloating, heartburn, and indigestion
• involuntary weight changes
• fatigue or sleep problems
• food intolerances
• autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis
• skin irritation like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis
Ways to improve intestinal bacteria
Harnessing the many benefits of diverse and healthy intestinal bacteria isn’t as easy as eating yogurt every day, but it’s not much more difficult either.
What the heck are probiotics and prebiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria in the gut, and prebiotics are what those bacteria eat. They are found in our diet and in many supplements on the market. However, supplements are not well regulated, and researchers are still unsure of their benefits.
1. Load up on fiber
Soluble fiber (found in foods like oats, lentils, beans, onions, garlic, and fruits) has prebiotics that feed good bacteria and keep them happy.
2. Tame your sweet tooth
Consuming too much sugar can alter the intestinal microbiome and cause issues like chronic inflammation and a weakened immune system. Focusing on unprocessed foods with minimal added sugar is your best bet to keep things balanced.
3. Get checked for food intolerances
If you have gas, bloating, or other stomach issues, it may be helpful for your doctor to test you for food intolerances. You can then avoid foods that may trigger these problems and get your gut back on track.
4. Be cautious with antibiotics
Taking antibiotics may be a necessary evil when dealing with a bacterial infection, but they can wipe out massive amounts of beneficial and harmful gut bacteria (antibiotic is literally the opposite of probiotic).
Early antibiotic exposure is also suspected to have a lifelong effect on various conditions, including future obesity. Make sure to take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary and never for things like viral infections, which are not affected by them.
5. Get enough sleep
A healthy sleep cycle depends on and is associated with the intestinal microbiome. They need each other to function optimally. Maintaining a regular sleep routine contributes to the well-being of your gut and nearly all other aspects of your body.
6. Eat plenty of fermented foods
Fermented foods undergo a process involving uses bacteria and yeast to break down sugars. Foods like yogurt, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi are packed with beneficial bacteria, just make sure the jars say they contain live cultures.
7. Consider probiotic supplements
If you simply can’t stand fermented foods, you can talk to your doctor about probiotic supplements. They can provide recommendations on reputable brands and identify the strains of bacteria that would be most beneficial for you.
The probiotic supplement industry is quite wild and not well-regulated, so make sure to use high-quality brands recommended by your doctor or dietitian.
The benefits of probiotic supplements are debated and may take a long time to start working.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that practically every aspect 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 these mechanisms. What we do know is that having a happy gut environment can be a significant key to health.
Fortunately, taking care of your gut doesn’t have to be complicated. Follow a balanced and nutrient-rich diet that includes fiber, fruits, and vegetables, and try some fermented foods. Your entire body will thank you.