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BIOLOGY

Gut Health: A Beginner’s Guide to the Microbiome

Why It Matters, and What You Can Do For It.

December 1, 2023
Medically-reviewed and fact checked by Ryan Lester, PA-C

Gut Health: Why It Matters, and What You Can Do For It

You've likely encountered a lot of buzz about gut health in the last few years. You may have come across terms like "microbiome" or "intestinal flora" and the significance of probiotics. This surge in interest stems from the recognition that the balance of microorganisms inhabiting our digestive system is absolutely crucial for everything, from physical and mental health to overall immunity and more. Gut health isn't just about regularity; it's about looking and feeling your best while maintaining peak health. Here's what you should understand and what actions to take.

What is It, Exactly?

The microbiome, as defined by the University of Washington's Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health, refers to the genetic material of all the microbes and microorganisms—such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses—living on and inside the human body. Although it wasn't widely recognized until the late 1990s, the microbiome plays a crucial role in human development, immunity, and nutrition. It constitutes around one to two percent of your overall body weight, meaning that a 180-pound man carries approximately 2 pounds of bacteria within his body.

How to Identify When Your Gut Health is Imbalanced

This community of microbes is robust yet sensitive. It responds not only to your diet and beverage choices but also to medications, sleep patterns, travel frequency, and work-related stress—all of which can create conditions favorable for an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. When this occurs, you may initially experience typical digestive symptoms like bloating, cramps, constipation, or gas. Harmful bacteria tend to produce more gas, making digestive issues a clear signal that your gut bacteria may be imbalanced.

Additionally, you might notice skin irritation. How does this happen? According to Shelby Keys, a dietitian at Brigham and Women's Hospital, one of the gut's primary functions is supporting health by generating immune responses. However, a dysfunctional intestinal barrier can lead to inflammation that manifests on your external barrier—your skin may suffer from conditions like rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis.

Alternatively, you might feel constantly fatigued. Your microbiome plays a significant role in producing mood-enhancing chemicals (such as dopamine and serotonin). Therefore, if your bacterial balance is disrupted, your mood can be similarly affected. Moreover, when your immune system is under strain, combatting the imbalance in your gut flora can make you feel like you're coming down with a cold or experiencing flu-like symptoms.

The Science Behind It All

Recent research from the National Institutes of Health's Human Microbiome Project has revealed that your gut's microbiome plays a pivotal role in influencing your overall well-being. Similar to how bacteria transform milk into yogurt or cabbage into sauerkraut, the beneficial bacteria in our intestines break down dietary fiber through fermentation. This process satisfies their needs and leaves behind organic acids that can have anti-inflammatory effects and contribute to overall health.

How Can Probiotics Help?

Now, let's delve into the intriguing realm of probiotics. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that either match or closely resemble the bacteria already present in your body. In a recent study published in Nutrients, researchers explored the immune-boosting capabilities of probiotics found in yogurt. They discovered that live bacteria interact with intestinal microbes to produce essential vitamins like B6, B12, and K. Furthermore, they help fend off harmful bacteria and may also fortify the natural barrier function of your intestines, protecting against certain viruses. 

On the flip side, an important study in 2018 from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, published in the journal Cell, demonstrated that one’s native microbiome and genetic makeup best determine if taking a probiotic is beneficial. In general, there were “persisters” whose guts accepted the probiotic microbes and “resisters” who expelled them. 

Our take: if you start a probiotic for 1-2 months and notice a significant improvement in bowel function, bloating, cramping, gas, etc., then it makes sense to continue taking the probiotic. If not, you are probably a “resister” and likely just wasting your money.

Nourish Your Gut – In Moderation

Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford University, who focuses on diet's impact on gut bacteria, advises consuming as many high-fiber fruits, vegetables, and legumes as possible. Without sufficient fiber in your diet, you leave little nourishment for your microbiome. However, it's essential to space out your meals. Consuming food more frequently than every one-and-a-half to two hours can interfere with the body's cleansing waves, known as peristalsis, according to Keys. Disrupting these cleansing waves can lead to an overgrowth of bacteria in the gut.

Moving Forward

The importance of the gut and its impact on overall health and vitality is clear; however, our ability to influence this vast ecosystem is still in the early stages. For now, keep it simple: eat a wide variety of high fiber fruits and vegetables to feed the good bacteria and use a high quality probiotic if you notice significant improvements in bowel function while taking it.

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