For a long time, bacteria was the enemy. We were told to disinfect everything and take antibiotics whenever we got a little bit sick, because killing the bacteria was the only way to make us safe. However, as science has progressed, we’ve learned more and more about how bacteria are not only helpful, but downright necessary for our lives. These necessary bacteria in our bodies, which we are learning more about their importance, are collectively called the microbiome.
The microbiome is the “mini-ecosystem” of microbes living everywhere throughout your body, including your skin, eyes, mouth and gut. If that sounds scary or disgusting, don’t worry. Most of the bacteria are helpful (symbiotic) or at least not harmful (non-pathogenic). While the microbiome contains all the bacteria in and on your body, several surprising health benefits have been linked to the bacteria in your gut specifically, and this is what most people are referring to when they talk about all the good the microbiome can do for you.
A healthy microbiome helps keep you well. It does this by supporting digestion, a healthy immune system, bone health, healthy weight and brain health. The more diverse the microbiome, the more benefits, and more diverse array of benefits, you may receive.
As we learn more about the gut microbiome, a correlation between gut health and digestion, metabolism and body weight is emerging. Gut health can influence how nutrients are extracted and fat stores are created from the foods you consume. As a result, the better and more diverse the bacteria, the better you can digest your food, leading to better nutrient absorption and overall health.
Conversely, a non-diverse or out-of-balance microbiome can lead to gut-related issues, and the foundations of a healthy or poor microbiome can begin early. At birth, our microbiome is like a blank slate, and it’s through exposure to the birth canal, consumption of a mother’s milk, and contact with microbes in our environment that it begins to form. Factors such as sleep quality, stress level, and daily exposure to environmental bacteria continually effect the state and composition of the gut microbiome. The increasing use of antibiotics and the growing fixation on sterilized environments have likely contributed to an increase of gut-related issues and other complains involving mood, skin, digestion, metabolism, and immunity.
When the gut has too many bad bacteria and not enough helpful microbes to counteract them, a negative imbalance occurs and may ultimately lead to these types of health issues.
One of the easiest ways to improve the bacterial diversity of your microbiome is through removing harmful foods from your diet. Certain foods, whose own microbiomes have been disrupted, can cause compromise the microbiome and caused inflammation when consumed frequently. For example, poultry, meat, and eggs produced from animals that have been fed corn and other cheap feed can contain elevated levels of potentially disruptive Omega-6. Refined carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners, processed grains, added sugars, refined vegetables and pasteurized dairy products are also to be avoided if you’re trying to create a healthy gut microbiome.
Conversely, there are many natural foods that promote good bacteria in the gut and naturally lower inflammation. Foods that are high in antioxidants can mitigate the damage caused by oxidative stress and an overactive immune system. A few healthy foods that you could consider adding to your diet are fresh vegetables, legumes, whole fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, herbs, spices, teas, red wine, wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs, grass-fed meats and probiotics. Eating foods that contain cultures of good bacteria can also be very beneficial. Yogurt, dark chocolate, natto, temph, pickles, kefir and cultured vegetables are some examples of probiotic foods that contain the good bacteria your microbiome needs.
Even though we’ve been told through the years that bacteria are dangerous pathogens, there are many good bacteria that help us every day, and there is quite a lot we can do to help those good bacteria thrive. We can avoid any unnecessary use of antibiotics, reduce stress, get enough quality sleep, reasonably restrain the germaphobe inside of us, eat natural foods while avoiding processed, pasteurized and sugar-added options, and breast feed our babies if at all possible.
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Far from a fad, the microbiome is becoming a huge opportunity for growth in both wellness and medicine, with a large body of ongoing studies revolving around it. Some may be surprised to find out how much the microbes in the gut affect our overall health!