The human body is a biological community bursting with life. From the cosy snug of the armpits to your digestive tract, swathes of microbes breed, die and thrive through you.
There are literally trillions of microbial organisms living in and on our bodies, outnumbering our own cells one-to-one. We have resisted them for years, with antibiotics, disinfectants, hand sanitisers and sprays, but as we get to understand them more, many of them it seems, are actually our little allies.
Nowhere else can this be seen more evidently than in the close connection we have with our gut bacteria - the microbiome.
What Exactly is the Microbiome?
Known as the microbiome, this idiosyncratic ecosystem of bacteria living in the gut plays an important role in a range of bodily functions, everything from supporting metabolism and digestion, through to influencing mood and immunity.
The vast ecosystem of the gut microbiome carries bacteria, yeasts, fungi, viruses and protozoans that live in our digestive tract. The organisms collectively weigh up to 2kg - fast fact for you, your microbiome is heavier than the average brain! The microbiome, however, is somewhat elusive in nature because it’s not fixed in one permanent location like other organs and is responsible for a myriad of roles that are tied to so many different bodily functions.
People have evolved alongside these useful gut bacteria and we function at our best when our bacteria do. It’s been recognised that the increased use of antibiotics has also seen an increase in many diseases which are prevalent today.
Studies have shown that individuals who have taken a higher number of courses of antibiotics have a higher risk of IBS or inflammatory bowel disease. This is particularly evident in those who have taken antibiotics from infancy.
Without being too hard on all antibiotics, their side-effects are an indication of how important caring for our gut microbiome is. If antibiotics show the severe case of what happens when we eradicate our gut bacteria, you can only imagine the negative effects if we neglect them in more subtle ways every day.
Digestion and the Microbiome.
Our gut bacteria work hard to disintegrate the food we eat. Going back to basics, this means bacteria supports us to ‘free’ essential nutrients in foods that our bodies don’t naturally have the enzymes for. Gut bacteria provide us with crucial molecules and access to vitamins and other compounds to support nutrition - vitamin K, biotin, vitamin B12, amino acids, short-chain fatty acids and folic acid are just a few of the byproducts of a well-functioning gut microbiome.
The Microbiome and your Metabolism.
There is evidence that the microbiome also plays a part in weight management and that calories in, does not necessarily equal calories out. Studies have shown that obese mice and humans have a limited presence of healthy gut bacteria and that transferring this set of ‘overweight’ microbiome to a healthy-weight mouse can lead to the same mouse gaining more weight, even on the same diet! In a reverse, transferring the ‘healthy-weight’ microbiome also led to decreased weight gain in the overweight participant.
Gut Bacteria and your Brain.
Just when we thought this wonderstuff couldn’t be more impressive, research shows that the microbiome impacts our mood. This study from North Carolina State University suggests that the by-products of fibre digestion have been shown to increase levels of serotonin, a hormone associated with positive mood regulation.
This is because the gut has a direct line of neurons tracking to our brain which communicate using intricate pathways of electrical and chemical signals. So while we and our bacteria eat away happily on fibre-rich foods, the by-products produced can act as chemical signals to activate neural messages to tell the body to produce more of a specific hormone.
What signals they produce is all dependent on the bacteria that lives in our gut. In parallel with obesity research, mental health studies in mice show how behaviours of stress, anxiety and depression can be transferred from one mouse to another with microbiome transplantations. In a nutshell - healthy, happy gut equals healthy, happy mind.
Immunity and Microbiome.
In a similar way, the microbiome ‘talks’ to the immune system to make sure it functions the way it should. There’s strong evidence that the interaction evolves over time to manage the balance between reacting to harmful pathogens and accepting non-harmful organisms. We need our immune system to react to the pathogens that can make us unwell while letting the beneficial gut bacteria go about their important business.
Because our immune systems have evolved to work in the presence of these friendly beneficial bacteria, some scientists think that disrupting the microbiome community is what causes the immune system to go into overdrive. Allergies are an example where the system fights against harmless particles such as dust. This principle can be applied to a whole host of autoimmune diseases where the immune system simply isn’t working the way it’s supposed to.
Caring for your Microbiome.
On an everyday basis, advice to build up a healthy gut microbiome community is fairly simple: avoid empty high-fat, high-sugar processed foods which are associated with a less diverse population of bacteria, and eat a balanced diet bursting with ferments, plants and lots of fibre.
Remember, what feeds you is what feeds your microbiome.
Here’s our tried and tested advice to tick the boxes to get your gut bacteria into balance with your diet:
1. Love your gut with fermented foods and drinks - Unpasteurised organic cultured vegetables like sauerkraut or kimchi and fermented drinks such as Jun and Kombucha love your gut and feed the good guys to create and support a happy environment for your microbiome’s good bacteria. Support with a good quality probiotic supplement when you need that additional boost too.
2. Eat more plant-based foods - Your gut bacteria loves to munch away on the fibres from plant-based foods. A study by Cardiff University has found a direct correlation between a diet high in a variety of plant-based foods and a super healthy and diverse gut microbiome population. Artichokes, garlic, beans, oats, onions and asparagus are just a few example of ‘star foods’ that help your good bacteria to flourish.
3. Make gut healing a priority - our intestinal walls can sometimes be damaged or inflamed, and this can cause unwarranted stress on your gut bacteria. Add gut healing foods such as homemade bone stock or shots of Krautchi or Beet Kvass Juices into your daily routine to keep your intestinal walls healed, healthy and happy.
When carried out correctly, these interventions and daily rituals hold much promise as a means of alleviating microbiome-associated ailments, and many exciting developments are taking place in the area.
Our microbiome forms a considerable amount of who we are - it’s time we recognise that we need to give them the treatment and care it deserves.
Are you currently undertaking a microbiome-friendly diet and have some insight to share?
Comment below and let’s fly the flag for a happy, healthy gut microbiome.