What is the Gut Microbiome and Why Does it Matter to Me?

Many people rely on their gut reactions when it comes to making important decisions. But when it comes to how certain foods and medicines react in our guts, a measure of forethought should be taken.

The gut is where one of the body’s most important collections of microorganisms live. There, in the intestine, trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi act as an essential organ called the gut microbiome. Treat it well, and it ensures good health.

What We Eat Can Affect How Gut Microbes Function

Just as healthy microbes make for a happy body, unhealthy microbes (or microbiome) can produce an unhappy gut.

Even an imbalance of healthy and unhealthy microbes can cause weight gain, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease. Symptoms of these conditions include diarrhea, stomach pain, cramping, and the urgent need to go to the bathroom.

A healthy gut microbiome tells the intestinal cells to better digest certain foods, and it prevents disease-causing bacteria from sticking in the intestine. In addition, studies indicate a healthy gut microbiome may be good for the heart and brain, as well as lower the risk of diabetes.

Gut Check: 6 Ways to Improve the Microbiome

Each of us can improve the balance of healthy microbes in our guts through the nourishments we choose every day. Here are six easy choices:

  • Get sweet on fermentation. Naturally fermented foods, including sauerkraut, probiotic yogurt, kombucha, and miso, contain a healthy bacteria found in the intestine, called lactobacilli, which helps break milk sugars down into lactic acid, a natural preservative. This makes fermented foods a natural source of probiotics, which some research suggests can improve the health of the gut microbiome.
  • Eat “pre” as well as “pro” foods. Prebiotics, not to be confused with probiotics, are indigestible carbohydrates that stimulate the growth of good bacteria. Bananas, artichokes, asparagus, garlic, and oats are among tasty and easy-to-access prebiotics.
  • Don’t go halfway on grains. Whole grains including brown rice, barley, bulgur, oatmeal, and whole wheat breads can contribute to higher levels of the bacterial microbes that moderate gut inflammation and enhance the immune system.
  • Compound on plants, and chocolate. One might not think of plants when eyeing dessert, but dark chocolate is a rich source of polyphenol, a plant compound also found in red wine, berries, olive oil, and green tea. The microbiome breaks down polyphenols to encourage healthy bacterial growth.
  • Go “lite” on fake sweeteners. Research indicates that some artificial sweeteners, including saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame, can disease healthy bacteria and cause it to invade the gut wall. Previous studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can stimulate the growth of unhealthy bacteria and increase blood sugar.
  • Take antibiotics, but only if you must. While microorganism-killing medicines target bad bacteria, they also can destroy good bacteria in the gut microbiome. Patients with intestinal issues should ensure such prescriptions are medically necessary.

Lastly, eat a varied diet, because it will nourish a more diverse microbiome. Diets high in plants may help reduce inflammation, cholesterol levels, and the presence of disease-causing bacteria, such as E. Coli.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of an unhealthy gut microbiome, such as bloating, cramping, and diarrhea, see a gastroenterologist. When the gut is telling us something, we should trust it.

To read up on irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and other gastroenterology issues, visit our web pages on each condition.