Trillions of bacteria live in our gut and play an important role in our overall health. Their roles include digesting food, immune system health, producing vitamins and neurotransmitters, and regulating mood and brain function.
Many factors can influence the diversity of bacteria in our gut – also known as our microbiome – such as diet. However, recent studies have shown that genetics surprisingly plays a minor role. Research has shown that identical twins have only about a third of their gut bacteria in common. This explains why each of us reacts differently to certain foods.
Gut microbes colonize our gut from birth (and possibly even earlier!), but come and go over time. These bacteria produce substances that are absorbed through the intestinal walls into our bloodstream and perform functions in our immune and nervous systems and organs.
When our gut is out of balance – also known as dysbiosis - diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, chronic fatigue, or even cancer can result. Although the causes of dysbiosis are not yet fully understood, stress, poor diet, antibiotic use, disease, and obesity can all play a role.
A healthy gut is a diverse gut, and therefore the food we eat is one of the most important factors affecting the diversity of gut bacteria. Foods, supplements, and prescription drugs feed the bacteria that live there. Some bacteria favor certain foods over others, which is why it is important to eat a wide range of healthy, whole foods.
Ways a healthy microbiome benefits you
A healthy microbiome is made up of various microorganisms, including bacteria, that aid digestion. The bacteria help the body fully digest and utilize the energy and nutrients from the complex carbohydrates and proteins you eat.
Supports a healthy immune system:
A healthy gut microbiome is the first line of defense against ingested pathogens. To this end, it competes with pathogens for nutrients and secretes antimicrobial compounds. These actions support your immune system by making it more difficult for pathogens to colonize.
Supports bone health:
Calcium is a nutrient that is essential for bone health, but many Americans do not consume it in sufficient amounts. A diverse group of bacteria found in a healthy gut microbiome can help increase calcium absorption. Therefore, a healthy gut microbiome can support bone health.
Supports a healthy weight:
A small but important key to maintaining a healthy weight can be your gut microbiome. A healthy microbiome is characterized by a balance of good and bad microbes. Studies have linked an unbalanced or undiversified microbiome to obesity. Conversely, a balanced microbiome has been linked to a healthy weight.
Supports brain health:
The gut-brain axis is the way our gut communicates with our brain. This communication can be influenced by specific gut microbiomes releasing neurotransmitters, so it is likely that the gut microbiome can influence mood and cognition.