A hidden world of microorganisms inhabits the distant ends of your digestive tract, remotely dictating your mood, immune system, hormone levels, the inflammatory tone of your body, and so much more. The gut microbiome is considered a virtual organ intricately involved with nearly every facet of your health. In the womb, our tiny bodies are protected from the outside environment and are therefore sterile. However, as we move through the birth canal, enter the big wide world, and take our first sips of colostrum and breastmilk, we are exposed to beneficial microbes that colonize our gut.
These first microbial encounters set the stage for immune function and digestion. By age 3, our gut microbiome is relatively stable. However, our long-term diet, stress levels, environment, and the medications we take, such as antibiotics, continue to impact our gut microbiome into adulthood.
Richness vs. Diversity: The health of your gut is measured by both richness and biodiversity. Diversity refers to the number of different microbial species in your gut. Richness is the abundance of bacteria from each species present in your gut.
The Gut and Immunity: Poor microbial diversity is associated with metabolic disorders, mental health conditions, autoimmune disease, allergies, eczema, food intolerances, irritable bowel disease, and so much more. This isn’t a huge surprise considering that the gut is the largest immune site, home to 70-80% of all immune cells in your body. Humans have co-evolved with these bacteria over the millennia, forming a deep, mutualistic bond. The human body relies on bacteria to complete a variety of essential tasks.
Gut bacteria affect gene expression, food cravings, and can even train the immune system on how to respond to harmful and benign molecules. Without a healthy gut, the naïve immune system might overreact to food particles, pollen, or even your own human tissue, setting you up for allergies and autoimmune conditions. Furthermore, gut bacteria alert the immune system to the presence of pathogens, produce antimicrobials to kill off unwanted microbes, and manufacture compounds that quell inflammation throughout the body.
Gut-Friendly Diet and Lifestyle
To diversify and strengthen your gut, researchers recommend that you (quite literally) return to Mother Nature:
1. Eat natural foods – A diet, rich in local plant foods is like medicine for your gut. Since each species requires a different fuel source, eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes can support the numerous foundational bacteria in your gut. Plus, brightly colored fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients known as polyphenols, which increase the abundance of beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
2. Get outside – Research shows that people who confine themselves to urban and indoor environments are shown to have lower microbial diversity. Spending time in the natural world, getting your hands dirty in rich soil, and inhaling fresh outside air provides a potent dose of beneficial microbes that exist in nature. Our environments are rich sources of microbes and inevitably influence the composition of our gut bacteria.
3. Spend time with pets and farm animals – Animals have their own unique microbiomes, and people who are exposed to animals have a richer gut microbiome composition.
4. Try fermented foods – Natto (fermented soybeans), kombucha, yogurt, kimchi, and other fermented foods are great ways to introduce probiotics to your system on a daily basis.
5. Take a well-researched probiotic – Probiotic supplements are deeply therapeutic for conditions such as irritable bowel disease, eczema, metabolic diseases, and promote mental health. However, not all probiotic supplements are created equal, and some probiotics are more effective than others. Some of the most well-researched, potent probiotics come from Bacillus spores.
Image Credit: Janice Fransisco