What comes to mind when you think of bacteria? Probably something unpleasant.
The idea of bacteria usually conjures up thoughts about strep throat or dirty public bathrooms. And yes, bacteria is involved in both of those. But bacteria isn’t always bad. In fact, we need it.
We each have an entire world of bacteria living inside our bodies. Don’t panic! This is a good thing. And it’s known as your microbiome.
What is the microbiome?
The microbiome is a whole community of bacteria and other organisms that live on and inside our bodies. In fact, your microbiome contains more cells than your body does — an estimated 39 trillion. If you take a microscope to your microbiome you’ll find viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
Not all these cells are beneficial. But in a healthy microbiome, the good bacteria are able to keep the disease-causing bacteria under control.
Why do we need a microbiome?
The thought of having trillions of cells inside that aren’t actually a part of your body may seem unappealing. But the microbiome is critical for health — especially the organisms that line your intestines, known as your gut bacteria or gut flora.
This community of organisms is so important for your health and daily body functioning that it’s actually been labeled as a supporting organ. Here are just a few of the things your gut bacteria does for you:
✔ Supports the digestive system by breaking down certain carbohydrates — called prebiotics.
✔ Helps activate the genes in the cells involved in nutrient absorption.
✔ Prevents the overgrowth of harmful bacteria.
✔ Synthesizes certain amino acids and vitamins — including the B vitamins and vitamin K.
✔ Stimulates the immune system and protects you from disease. Your “good bacteria” fight off the bad invaders that come in from outside through food, drink, and air.
✔ Controls fat storage.
✔ Supports your mental health by producing chemicals like serotonin and GABA, which affect mood.
✔ Helps break down toxins.
The bacteria in your gut are extremely resilient. Think of the conditions they live in — high acidity, minimal oxygen, and total darkness. Yet they thrive and work together to keep you healthy.
But they do need your help. A flourishing microbiome does wonders for our health. But there are things we do that damage the balance of organisms living in our guts. What you eat (including medications) and what you’re exposed to can damage your gut bacteria.
What happens when the microbiome isn’t healthy?
The good and bad bacteria stay in balance as long as your microbiome stays healthy. But if that balance is altered too much, you can develop an imbalance called dysbiosis. And then you are more susceptible to disease and digestive problems.
If you have dysbiosis (your gut flora is out of balance), you are more likely to develop issues including obesity, diabetes, even cancer, and cardiovascular issues.
Many of the patients I see in my practice have Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). These are also associated with issues in the gut microbiome.
If your microbiome is out of balance, you may experience the following symptoms:
😕 Chronic fatigue
😕 Digestive issues
😕 Acid reflux or heartburn
😕 Food intolerance
😕 Gas and bloating
😕 Inflammation and aching joints
😕 ADHD or issues with concentration
😕 Anxiety or depression
How does stress affect the microbiome?
The microbiome is a delicately balanced system. So anything that affects your body in a biochemical way can change the balance — medications, foods, and even stress.
When you experience stress, it’s not just your emotions that are triggered. Stress induces chemical reactions in your body in the form of stress hormones. And these stress hormones can alter your gut bacteria and affect its functioning.
According to scientists from The Ohio State University, stress can make changes in the diversity, composition, and even the numbers of the microorganisms that live in the gut.1 When the bacteria becomes less diverse or decreases in number, it’s easier for harmful bacteria to take hold and grow out of control.
How can you keep your microbiome healthy?
Now you know how important your gut flora is to your health — and in keeping your digestive issues under control. But how do you maintain a healthy microbiome?
There are many simple food and lifestyle changes you can make that will have a positive impact on your gut bacteria. But before you make any food changes, make sure you check with your practitioner. Many people who suffer from conditions like IBS and SIBO need to avoid certain gut-friendly foods (like FODMAPS) in order to manage their condition.
Try some of these tips to improve your gut health:
👍 Eat your veggies. Many vegetables, especially leafy greens, contain fiber that’s good for your gut flora. People who eat a diet rich in plant products are more likely to have a healthy microbiome.
👍 Avoid sugar and processed foods. Your gut bacteria need a healthy diet just like you do. Highly processed foods or foods high in processed sugars don’t feed them well.
👍 Avoid taking unnecessary antibiotics. Antibiotics can be life-saving. But they don’t discriminate. They attack all bacteria — even the good kind.
👍 Take a high quality probiotic supplement. But be careful though. Many commercially available probiotics aren’t very effective. The cultures need to be live and protected from the acidity of your stomach before they can thrive in your intestines. Check with your practitioner for a recommendation.
👍 Eat fermented foods. Unpasteurized foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha contain high populations of healthy bacteria for your gut. But check with your practitioner first. There are digestive conditions that don’t respond well to probiotic foods.
👍 Switch your household cleaners. Disinfectant products have been shown to disrupt healthy gut bacteria. Consider switching to natural products that are not labeled as “antibacterial”.
👍 Avoid stress. Now you know how much stress impacts gut health. Later this month we’ll be talking about all the ways you can reduce your stress so you can improve your digestive issues.