When you hear the word “bacteria,” you probably think of illnesses or diseases. And while some bacteria can make us sick, some are critical for our overall good health. The trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in our bodies are collectively known as the microbiome, and the ones that live in our gut are very important to our immune system, heart, weight, and many other aspects of health.
So let’s dive into the connection between our gut health and overall wellness and how we can improve both through nutritious eating.
What is the Gut Microbiome, and What Does It Do?
Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic living things are known as microbes, shortened from their full label of microorganisms. Trillions of these microbes live mainly in a pocket of our large intestine called the cecum and are called the gut microbiome.
As humans have evolved, so too have our microbes. And during this evolution, microbes have come to play an essential role in our bodies – it would actually be very difficult to survive without them. We’re first exposed to microbes when we pass through our mother’s birth canal, and from there, they diversify, which means many different types of microbes develop. And that’s a good thing – higher microbiome diversity is considered good for your health. As our microbes grow, they aid our bodies in different ways, including digesting breast milk and fiber and helping to regulate our immune system and brain. This means our gut microbiome affects critical bodily functions and influences our health in many ways.
A Good Gut = Better Health
Just a few of the ways that gut health can impact and affect our overall health include:
- Gut health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our gut microbes play a role in our gut health. Intestinal diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease could be due to gut dysbiosis since microbes produce gas and other chemicals, leading to many symptoms of intestinal discomfort. And on the flip side, good bacteria can improve our gut health. Healthy bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, found in probiotics and yogurt, can help seal gaps between intestinal cells, reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and prevent disease-causing bacteria from lingering on our intestinal wall.
- Weight. Remember that microbe diversity? Well, having too many unhealthy microbes can contribute to weight gain and even some diseases. In fact, several studies have shown that the gut microbiome was completely different in identical twins – one of whom had obesity and one who did not. This demonstrated that differences in the microbiome were not genetic and could play a role in our weight.
- Heart health. The gut microbiome can play a role in keeping our hearts healthy. A study of 1,500 people found that the gut microbiome played an important role in promoting good HDL cholesterol and triglycerides, which can lower our risk of heart disease. Certain unhealthy bacteria may contribute to heart disease by producing trimethylamine N-oxide, which can significantly increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems.
- Control blood sugar. Our gut health could play a role in controlling blood sugar, affecting our risks for type 1 and 2 diabetes. One study examined 33 infants with a genetically high risk of developing type 1 diabetes. The researchers discovered that the microbiome diversity dropped suddenly before the onset of type 1 diabetes and that levels of unhealthy bacteria increased. And another study found that even when people eat the exact same food, their blood sugar levels vary, which could mean a link between the different types of bacteria in their gut and their blood sugar.
Improving Gut Health with Food
The food we eat plays an enormous role in our gut health, which means we can work to increase our healthy bacteria while lowering the unhealthy kind. Consider the following dietary habits to see and feel an improvement in your gut and overall health.
- Eliminate or reduce the use of artificial sweeteners. Evidence shows that artificial sweeteners like aspartame increase blood sugar by stimulating the growth of unhealthy bacteria like Enterobacteriaceae.
- Take a probiotic supplement. Probiotics are live bacteria that can help get your gut back to a healthy state after experiencing issues such as an intestinal bug or taking antibiotics that can disrupt the balance between good and bad bacteria.
- Diversify your foods. Eating a wide range of foods can also lead to a more diverse microbiome. In particular, fiber, found in legumes, beans, and fruit, can promote the growth of healthy bacteria such as Bifidobacteria.
- Try fermented foods. Yogurt, kir, and sauerkraut are a few examples of fermented food that contain healthy bacteria and can lower the amount of unhealthy, disease-causing bacteria in the gut.
- Eat polyphenols-rich foods. It might be a mouthful to pronounce, but the plant compound polyphenols, which can be found in red wine, green tea, dark chocolate, olive oil, and whole grains, is broken down by the microbiome and promotes healthy bacteria growth.
Take Care of Your Gut
The gut microbiome truly is a wonder. Healthy and unhealthy bacteria can impact our entire bodies, from heart and intestinal health to weight and blood sugar. Ensuring that we have the right balance of bacteria in our gut is critical to our overall health, and eating nutritious foods is the key to keeping our guts healthy.
If you’re looking for extra support for your nutritional needs, reach out to us. At Forge, a team of certified dieticians is ready to create a custom plan and support your goals.