When you hear the word “bacteria,” what comes to mind? Most people immediately think of germs that cause harmful infections. But did you know that not all bacteria are bad? In fact, your body is more bacteria than it is human — you have 10 times more bacteria than cells!
Approximately 100 trillion bacteria, both good and bad, reside in your intestines and stomach. Collectively, this community is referred to as the microbiome, or less formally, the gut. The bacteria in your gut consist of roughly 1,000 species and 5,000 different strains.
Until relatively recently, science underappreciated the role of the gut in overall human health. But research is finally discovering that the gut biome could be key in preventing and even treating certain diseases. This article will overview the importance of gut health, the symptoms of poor gut health, and what you can do to promote a healthy gut.
Which Functions Does the Microbiome Perform?
“We now know that the GI tract is full of trillions of bacteria that not only help us process food but that also help our bodies maintain homeostasis and overall well-being.”
— Dr. Tara Menon, Gastroenterologist, Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
The microbiome plays a key part in digestion, but this is only the beginning of what this amazing ecosystem of microbes can do. Researchers have linked the good and bad gut bacteria in your gut to functions that go far beyond digestion and play an important role in human health.
Although it isn’t clear yet which specific strains of bacteria carry the most importance, the microbiome as a whole plays a vital role in:
- Metabolizing nutrients from medication and food
- Producing vitamins
- Acting a protective barrier against intestinal infection
- Preventing chronic illness
- Treating diseases
- Weight management
- Immune function
- Emotional health
Scientists do not yet agree on how gut bacteria perform these functions, but they do agree that a link exists between an unhealthy gut and conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and neurological disorders including schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression. Harvard University has definitively connected gut bacteria to the prevention of rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, immune disease, and even certain forms of cancer.
Considering the microbiome’s influence over so many aspects of our physical and emotional health, it’s clear we need to understand it better and pay more attention to it.
What Defines a Healthy Microbiome?
With this new understanding of your gut’s purpose, it’s important to recognize whether or not yours is doing its job. How do you know if your microbiome is healthy? It all comes down to the diversity of your gut bacteria. Studies have documented that generally healthy people have a greater diversity of microorganisms than those who aren’t as healthy. But further research is needed to determine whether low bacterial diversity increases the risk of disease, or if a disease decreases bacterial diversity.
Microbial diversity in your microbiome is impacted by age, genes, diet, environment, and medications. Even though you can’t control your age or your genes, you can take charge of your diet, environment, and medications to avoid gut issues and increase the number of good strains in your system.
Another defining characteristic of a healthy microbiome is balance. For instance, your gut contains bacteria that cause inflammation as well as bacteria that fight inflammation. Your gut is functioning properly if it’s keeping these good and bad bacteria balanced.
Which Lifestyle Factors Impact Gut Health?
Research on gut health is still in its infancy, many studies confirm that diet, behavior, and certain environmental factors can help or harm your microbiome.
- Diet: The food you consume directly affects your microbial diversity. If your diet is consistently high in sugar and processed foods, you are reducing the number of good bacteria in your microbiome and allowing harmful bacteria to take over.
- Birth and breastfeeding: The bacterial exposure people experience before age three can determine lifelong health. That’s why those who were born vaginally and breastfed as infants have higher bacterial diversity. They had more exposure to good bacteria in the birth canal and in breastmilk.
- Environment: If you grew up in an environment where you were regularly exposed to bacteria, you’re likely to have a more diverse microbiome.
- Stress: Recent evidence suggests that the microbiome and the brain influence each other; the gut emits signals that affect neurotransmitters, which makes mental and emotional stress harmful to your gut.
- Antibiotics: While short-term antibiotics are helpful in fighting off harmful bacterial infections, long-term antibiotics can do more harm than good by killing off good bacteria along with harmful bacteria.
What Are the Symptoms of Poor Gut Health?
Whenever your gut bacteria are imbalanced and diversity is diminished, your body might tell you in a number of ways. Imbalance can manifest itself in the form of:
- Stomach pain
These symptoms usually go away over time, but if they don’t resolve after a few weeks, you may have a chronic condition that requires diagnosis and treatment from a medical professional.
In some cases, bacterial imbalances don’t reveal symptoms at all for some time, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Poor gut health can put you at risk of serious diseases.
How Can I Know How Healthy My Gut Is?
It can be unsettling to know you could be at risk of disease without having any symptoms. You can’t feel or see your bacterial diversity or whether your gut is balanced or not, but fortunately, a simple gut health test can tell you. If you’re worried or curious about the condition of your microbiome, these tests can show you which bacterial strains are present in your gut and how healthy it is through a small stool sample. These tests will also give you suggestions on how to get your gut healthy based on your current diet and lifestyle.
How to Heal Your Gut
Some people are alarmed when their gut health tests reveal low microbe diversity, but there’s no real need to worry; restoring gut health is relatively simple. We’ve provided some general recommendations that could optimize your microbiome health below.
- Take a probiotic supplement: Probiotic supplements and food sources with beneficial bacteria will improve the number of good bacteria in your gut. Yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut are all good food sources of probiotics.
- Eat a balanced diet: Avoid excess dairy, red meat, and refined sugars. Make sure you eat enough whole foods and fiber. Your microbiome feeds off of whatever is left in the colon after the amino acids and other nutrients have been digested, so it’s important to consume enough complex fiber instead of processed foods.
- Get enough sleep, water, and exercise: Science believes that maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle will also contribute to a healthy gut.
- Avoid excessive alcohol and unnecessary medications: Excessive drinking and medicines that you don’t necessarily need might be hurting your microbiome. Talk to your doctor if you feel that your medication schedule needs to be reevaluated.
- Keep a journal: Pay attention to your habits and record how they make you feel. If you make changes, make note of any reactions you have. This can help you figure out which of your habits are hurting or helping your gut.
- Practice stress relief techniques: Alleviate the stress on your body and protect your microbiome by making time to relax and destress.
Order Your Gut Health Test Today
If you’re ready to learn about your own microbiome and how to improve your gut health, visit dna.psomagen.com to order your very own gut biome test.
Please note that this test is not meant to be a medical diagnosis or a treatment for any condition. If you have serious health concerns or you want to make any drastic changes to your lifestyle as a result of your gut health test, visit your doctor first. They can help you do so in a safe and healthy way.