True health starts in your gut: Microbiome

It’s hard to believe, but your health is merely a byproduct of trillions of microbes existing symbiotically within your gut. If the community of microbes, collectively known as the "microbiome," is out of balance, then countless aspects of your health and well-being are affected. Maintaining a diverse and robust microbiome is the basis of true health.

What is the microbiome?

The microbiome is the composition of all bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa that live inside and on the human body. The average human is home to between 10-100 trillion microbial cells, most of which are found in the gut.

The diversity of species in the gut microbiome is established during birth when the baby passes through the vaginal canal. During this process, the mother’s gut microbiome is passed to the child. In babies born through Cesarean section, their microbiome is more reflective of the microbiome found on the mother’s skin. The diversity of the microbiome increases significantly over the first 2.5 years of life and is altered by countless life events such as fever, antibiotic use, the transition from breast milk or formula to solid food and more. This goes to show how dynamic and responsive the microbiome is to our choices and environment.

While more and more medical professionals suggest probiotics after a round of antibiotics or a surgery, there’s little mention about how to prevent problems with the microbiome and subsequent medical conditions within conventional healthcare circles. The connection between our health and the microbiome is uncontested in the medical literature, so why aren’t we hearing more about how to proactively support the bugs in our gut? A healthy microbiome is a vital part of preventative medicine.

How the microbiome affects health

Your microbiome is vital to the overall health of your body. The fungi, bacteria, viruses, and protozoa that thrive on the resources you provide to them are balancing important mechanisms that affect your whole body.

In fact, your microbiome is, in large part, controlling your:

  • Metabolism
  • Resistance to infection
  • Inflammatory response
  • Brain function
  • Mood
  • Nutrient availability
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Hormone balance
  • Blood sugar regulation

When your microbiome is out of balance, this is referred to as dysbiosis. This puts you at risk of developing chronic symptoms and disease.

What are symptoms of dysbiosis?

While symptoms of dysbiosis are more commonly recognized in the gut, dysbiosis can wreak havoc on your entire body. In part, this is due to the bi-product of microbial metabolism that can lead to the build-up of toxins in the body. Symptoms of dysbiosis may include:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating and gas
  • Acne, eczema, and psoriasis
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Congestion
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Blood sugar imbalance and diabetes
  • Autoimmunity
  • Obesity
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Kidney disease

How can I support a healthy microbiome?

You can’t control the microbiome you were given, but you can support a healthy microbiome by following the scientifically supported steps below:

1. Sleep well

Currently, studies are mixed on whether sleep deprivation directly impacts the microbiome. However, we know that fatigue leads to poor food choices which directly impacts the health of the microbiome. Turns out that your microbiome also impacts your quality of sleep, meaning that your sleep quality will improve with a healthier microbiome.

2. Develop stress strategies

Researchers have shown that stress not only increases inflammation in the gut, but it changes the microbiome as well. They concluded that those changes are the connection between poor gut health in times of stress. Developing coping skills to reduce your body’s response to stress can mitigate the negative effects. Practices such as deep breathing, meditation, time in nature, exercise, yoga and the like can train the nervous system to be more resilient in times of stress.

3. Avoid sugar and sweeteners

Some microbes in the gut are less helpful than others. In fact, some species can be very inflammatory if their colonies grow out of control. These specific microbes thrive on sugar and refined carbohydrates. Avoiding these foods means that your unhealthy microbes stay in check, while more helpful microbes grow and thrive.

4. Avoid medications whenever possible

Many seemingly harmless medications negatively affect the gut. Studies have shown that proton-pump inhibitors such as Prilosec, antibiotics, metformin and laxatives have the most negative effect on the gut. Think twice before using medications and consider alternative options for treatment, if possible.

5. Exercise regularly

Regular exercise has been shown to improve the health of the gut. One study revealed that athletically-focused people had an increased number of health-promoting bacterial species, more microbial diversity, improved metabolic capacity, better gut-mucosal immunity, and a stronger gastrointestinal barrier function.

6. Eat fermented and probiotic foods

Probiotic and fermented foods contain their own live microbes that play a supporting role in your microbiome. These include food such as kefir, yogurt with live active cultures, pickled vegetables, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha tea, and sauerkraut. *Some people do not respond well to these foods which can be a sign of dysbiosis.

7. Boost your soluble fiber intake

Last but not least, and probably our favorite microbiome tip is to boost your intake of soluble fiber. Much like sugar feeds your “bad bugs”, soluble fiber is the fuel for health-promoting microbes. Increasing foods high in soluble fiber such as beans, lentils, oat bran, avocado, chia and flax is a good start. Aim for 15-20 grams per day and if you need a little help, add Florasophy to your daily routine to hit your soluble fiber goal.

About Megan Barnett, MS, CNS

Megan Barnett, MSMegan Barnett is a functional medicine practitioner in Portland, Oregon. In her clinical practice, she helps patients identify the root cause of their health problems, then designs individualized and evidence-based approaches to alleviate symptoms and help their bodies heal. She has a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Kansas State University and a Master of Science in Nutrition and Functional Medicine from University of Western States.