What’s the big deal about gut health? Gut health is not just a buzzword or fad that will fall by the wayside. The health of your gut has everything to do with the function of your body and wellness. A healthy gut microbiome is essential for optimal gastrointestinal and whole-body health.
Some people believe the gut microbiome is a built-in part of our genetic makeup that environmental influences can’t change. However, new research shows how profoundly the gut environment can change with dietary and environmental changes.
What Is a Healthy Gut Microbiome?
The human body contains trillions of microorganisms that exist in the tissues that line various organs, including your intestines. These organisms are collectively called your gut microbiota, or more colloquially, your “gut bacteria” or “gut bugs”. They aid digestion, vitamin production, and protection against infections, among other things.
Your gut microbiota is important for the daily functioning of your body. This group of microorganisms plays a key role in the development of a healthy immune system. Your gut bugs influence your mood, energy levels, and even your appetite and body weight.
But the benefits extend further. A healthy gut microbiome is essential for optimal gastrointestinal and whole-body health. Gut bacteria produce enzymes that help you digest food, produce some vitamins and other nutrients, protect against invading pathogens, make important neurotransmitters and support brain development in infants. Whew! That’s a lot of stuff.
There are trillions of microorganisms living in your gut. The size and diversity of the microbiome can vary from individual to individual. Some people have more gut bacteria and greater diversity. Scientists don’t know what the optimal gut microbiome make-up is, but research suggests a greater diversity of bacteria is healthier.
How Can You Cultivate and Maintain a Healthy Gut Microbiome?
Your lifestyle affects the composition of your gut microbiome. Research shows a person’s gut microbiome can change within 24 hours of making a dietary change. However, recovery from even one antibiotic prescription is slow. Some studies suggest the gut microbiome may not rebuild for months, or even a year, or longer after a course of antibiotics. That’s why it’s important not to take them for viral infections.
What can you do from a lifestyle standpoint to boost the health of your gut microbiome?
Eat More Probiotic-Rich Foods
Probiotic-rich foods contain gut-friendly bacteria that can seed your own intestinal tract and provide health benefits. Examples are yogurt with active cultures, kefir, and fermented vegetables. Another option is to take a probiotic supplement that contains probiotic strains like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species. However, probiotic supplements vary in quality, and there’s no guarantee that the bacteria in the supplement are still viable.
Add More Prebiotics to Your Diet
Prebiotics are a type of fermentable fiber that gut bacteria feed and thrive on. To boost the quantity of friendly bacteria in your gut, keep them nourished with foods that contain prebiotics. You can boost the prebiotic content of your diet by consuming more fiber, and certain foods are outstanding sources of prebiotics. These include legumes, chicory root, raw garlic, onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichoke, and jicama root. Make sure you include some of these foods in your diet. Also, add more nuts, whole grains, seeds, non-starchy vegetables, and fruit to your plate too.
Some studies show that prebiotics may benefit people with certain health conditions, including prediabetes, and cardiovascular risk factors, such as elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Make sure you’re getting enough fiber-rich foods and foods that specifically contain prebiotic fiber.
Only Take Antibiotics When You Have To
Some people want an antibiotic for every sniffle they have. Antibiotics won’t treat viruses, and they’re harmful to the gut microbiome. They wipe out gut-friendly bacteria too, and recovery from such an attack is lingering. The next time your doctor prescribes antibiotics for you, ask questions and make sure they’re necessary.
Research from the Pews Charitable Trusts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that up to a third of antibiotics prescribed by doctor’s offices and outpatient facilities aren’t necessary. All they do is weaken your gut microbiome and increase the risk of antibiotic resistance.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Some studies in rats raise a red flag about artificial sweeteners and their effect on the gut microbiome. In one study, rats that ate the artificial sweetener aspartame developed more gut bacteria associated with health problems. It’s unclear whether this also applies to humans. Until it’s clear, it’s best to avoid artificial sweeteners or limit their use.
Stress can also affect your gut microbiome. Physical and mental stress can affect intestinal function by altering gut motility and the integrity of the gut lining. That can change the composition of your gut microbiome. Make sure you have ways to reduce your stress level. Moderate exercise, particularly outdoors, is beneficial to your gut microbiome. Studies show regular exercise increases microbiome diversity, and that’s good for your health!
Medications and Drugs
Tobacco and alcohol can both disrupt microbiome health, but also medications. Beyond antibiotics, the worst offenders, drugs doctors prescribe for acid reflux, like proton-pump inhibitors, alter the gut microbiome by reducing acid production. A drop in acid in the stomach can cause harmful bacteria to overgrow in the gut.
The Bottom Line
Keep your gut healthy by adopting a gut-friendly lifestyle. Start by taking these six steps to improve the health of your gut microbiome. Your gut is one of the most important parts of your body. It contains countless bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that directly impact your physical health and mental well-being. Treat them well!
- Palmnäs MS, Cowan TE, Bomhof MR, Su J, Reimer RA, Vogel HJ, Hittel DS, Shearer J. Low-dose aspartame consumption differentially affects gut microbiota-host metabolic interactions in the diet-induced obese rat. PLoS One. 2014 Oct 14;9(10):e109841. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109841. PMID: 25313461; PMCID: PMC4197030.
- “Probiotics: What You Need To Know | NCCIH.” nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics-what-you-need-to-know.
- “The 19 Best Prebiotic Foods You Should Eat.” 08 Jun. 2016, healthline.com/nutrition/19-best-prebiotic-foods.
- “Gut Bacteria and Artificial Sweeteners.” healthline.com/health-news/sports-supplements-could-be-toxic-to-your-gut.
- org. “Why Doctors Prescribe Antibiotics—Even When They Shouldn’t”