“Gut health” is a relatively new concept in the study of the gastrointestinal system; while scientists have known for quite a while that various types of bacteria live in our digestive tract, it’s only in recent years that connections are starting to be made between those bacteria and the health of our digestive process. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the bacteria that thrive in our gut — referred to as the microbiome — may actually have a role to play in other body systems and our overall health and wellbeing. The next frontier of research is learning how different behaviors or the foods we eat can have a beneficial effect on the microbiome.
What is the Microbiome?
Anyone would be forgiven for being a little grossed out at the thought of a lot of tiny bacteria living and multiplying inside of us, no doubt because of deeply ingrained feelings about germs and their relation to sickness and disease. But the reality is that these communities of microorganisms have a symbiotic relationship with us. In short, the more choices we make that build up our gut health, the better those bacteria will function.
Scientists estimate that there are upwards of 100 trillion active bacteria living in our bodies at any given time. In fact, there might be nearly three times more bacteria and other “non-human” cells than actual human cells; these staggering facts about the contents of our body should probably cause everyone to sit up and take note of actions that can help or harm these microorganisms. Although these microbiota can and do exist in many different places in the body, by far the largest concentration is in the digestive tract. It is for this reason that the microbiome is often referred to as gut flora or gut bacteria, and it’s why “gut health” is such an important topic.
What Does the Microbiome Do?
To really understand gut health and how it can be modified or built up, it’s important to understand the functions these microbiota perform in our daily bodily functions. This area of research is still fairly new, however, so scientists don’t fully know the total scope of what the nearly 1000 species of microbiota do or the ways they help us. There are a variety of benefits that have been established, however:
- Pathogen defense: In addition to essentially “crowding out” some pathogens just by fully colonizing the digestive tract, these microbiota also produce some enzymes and compounds that specifically destroy the ability of some pathogens to reproduce or be active.
- Intestinal development: The microbiome in our large intestine begins to form within months after our birth; in fact, the epithelial lining of our intestines develops simultaneously with gut flora, and the two benefit from each other as the development continues.
- Improved immune function: When the immune system detects a pathogen in the body, it uses inflammation as a means of defense in order to expel the foreign agents; sometimes this inflammation backfires and causes health problems. There is some gut flora that can actually regulate this process and make it less likely to backfire and even improve immune system efficiency.
- Improve metabolism: Some carbohydrate compounds can only be metabolized by enzymes produced by gut bacteria because our cells are unable to produce them. Research has shown that the presence of these bacteria makes digestion 30% more efficient.
- Synthesis of nutrients: Since human cells can’t produce all the nutrients our bodies need for proper functioning, we have to rely on external sources or microbiota to synthesize them. Some examples are short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), vitamin K, and vitamin B12.
- Gut-brain axis: The link between the microbiome and our neurological health is one of the newest areas of research, but studies suggest that it can potentially have a positive effect on neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and autism as well as helping with depression and anxiety.
How Can You Improve Gut Health?
Knowing how valuable the microbiome is, what can we do to improve the situation? As noted earlier, research in this arena is still in its nascent stages, but doctors have identified some steps that can be taken that can foster a healthier environment for gut flora as well as lead to healthier living overall:
Improve Diet: It’s probably not surprising that diet choices play a big role in the health of the bacteria living in our digestive system. The following are some of the best recommendations for modifying your diet:
- Fiber: As an indigestible dietary component, fiber passes through the small intestine and into the large intestine where most of the gut flora live. Once there, the fiber acts as “food” for the gut flora; having sufficient fiber in the diet can ensure that the gut flora are operating efficiently at all the functions they perform. Most doctors recommend getting a minimum of 25g of fiber per day.
- Plant-based foods: In addition to their fiber content, vegetables and fruits have an additional prebiotic effect in providing sustenance for gut flora.
- Reduce fats: Foods with high saturated fat content, especially fried foods, can irritate the lining of the bowels where the gut flora live as well as promote the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Avoid unnecessary antibiotics: Doctors sometimes prescribe antibiotics to cure bacterial infections, but these drugs can also harm the helpful bacteria in the digestive tract. Make sure to avoid taking more antibiotics than are strictly necessary.
- Reduce red meat: Red meat and processed meats can impair the growth of healthy bacteria as well as promote the growth of harmful bacteria when not eaten in moderation.
- Probiotics: Research on probiotic supplements and foods is still inconclusive, but there is some evidence that foods with active bacteria like yogurt and fermented foods can be beneficial for adding to or improving gut bacteria already present.
Get Enough Sleep: Not getting enough sleep has been linked to numerous health problems, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and digestive disorders that can negatively affect the microbiome. While there is no magic number for the amount of sleep, most doctors recommend 7-9 hours per night.
Increase Exercise: Although scientists can’t fully explain it, research to date shows a strong link between sufficient exercise and a healthy gut. The American Heart Association (among other institutions) recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week.
Reduce Stress: Stress appears to be directly related to inflammation of the digestive tract; when this happens, the ability of helpful bacteria to regulate inflammation is impaired, which in turn makes the inflammation worse. If you’re in a stressful life situation, it’s important to find a way to manage the stress.
Take Care of Psychological Health: Ongoing studies on the gut-brain axis and the effect of the microbiome on psychological issues show a strong connection; in some people with depression, entire species of microbiota are missing. Right now this link is still somewhat controversial, but the data suggests that good psychological health might possibly improve gut health.
Gastroenterologist Appointment As scientists continue to study these linkages between gut health and other aspects of our overall health, new revelations will undoubtedly come to light. In the meantime, there are a variety of steps that can be taken to improve our gut health and help those trillions of bacteria living inside us function more efficiently. If you are interested in learning more about gastrointestinal health issues, or if you have a health concern that you would like to see a gastroenterologist about, contact Carolina digestive to make an appointment.