How Your Gut Bacteria Impact Your Health (And 3 Ways You Can Keep Them Healthy in Return!)
By now, we’ve probably all heard how important the health of our gut is to the health of our body as a whole.
But, why is our gut health so critical to our overall health and wellbeing?
It’s because, like it or not, your gut is home to trillions of friendly bacteria and other microbes (known as your microbiome).
These bacteria help to not only assist your digestive function, but they also have far-reaching effects on other body systems (like helping to regulate your immune system and mood, and even can help to prevent certain diseases).
If your gut bacteria are compromised (from taking antibiotics, eating an unhealthy diet, or a multitude of other factors), other areas of your health are likely to be taking a hit as well.
In this article, we’ll dive into how the microbiome affects other areas of your health and wellbeing, and three ways you can make sure you’re feeding those good gut bugs so they stick around.
The Microbiome and Immune System Health
A large portion (some say even up to 70 or 80%) of our immune system is in our gut.
This is an interesting concept, since anything that is in our gastrointestinal tract (the gut), is technically outside our bodies.
Viewing the gut in that way, you can begin to see that it serves as a critical barrier between your body and the outside world.
The gut is responsible for the absorption of really whatever is in it into the bloodstream. So it would make sense that the gut is where you need a strong army to defend your body from things that you don’t want absorbed (mainly pathogens from going about your everyday life in an unsanitary world).
And that is where your gut bacteria come in to play.
The microbiome, when healthy, communicate with the cells in the gut lining and help them protect the body against invaders that could be harmful if absorbed through the gut lining.
Also, your gut bacteria affect the pH of the gastrointestinal tract, creating a chemical barrier to infection.
But even more, research has shown that there is an interaction between the signals that your gut bacteria send out and the development of your immune system.
This study looked at rats without a microbiome, and was able to show that without these protective gut bugs, the rats did not develop nearly the levels of certain types of immune defending white blood cells as rats with a normal microbiome.
Which can potentially be a problem for those of us with known dysbiosis and other microbiome related issues.
However, these mice were able to recover a normal immune system when their guts were replenished with a healthy microbiome.
Just one more reason to take care of that microbiome of yours. And to realize that if yours is suffering at the moment, it can easily be recovered!
The Microbiome and A Healthy Stress Response
Stress is everywhere these days (even in things that are seemingly pleasurable, like exercise).
So, ensuring that we have a solid foundation in a well-functioning stress response is critical in today’s society.
And, you guessed it, our microbiome has been shown to be a key player in regulating stress response, especially during periods of real or perceived danger.
I bet you’ve felt it before, when you get nervous or someone cuts you off in traffic, you get that clenching feeling deep in your gut. That would be the connection between the gut and the brain (known as the gut-brain axis) in all its glory.
Studies done, again on mice without a microbiome, have shown that when introducing a certain strain of bacteria (Lactobacillus plantarum PS128), the mice exhibited behavior changes that are associated with increased levels of dopamine and serotonin (stress-reduction chemicals in the brain).
So, a healthy and robust microbiome will improve your chances in having a healthy and robust stress response.
Meaning, that your body won’t feel as worn down and depleted after every little stressor that you face, and you’ll have a more stable mood and energy throughout your day.
And, unfortunately, this is not just a one way connection, where the gut influences how we are able to respond to stress, but stress also influences our microbiome.
Even only short term exposure to stress can impact our gut bacteria in both diversity and quantity.
This is one of the reasons why, when healing from any sort of gut issues, stress reduction is crucial to regaining full gut health.
But, the gut-brain relationship is also why so many people with gut issues also suffer from anxiety and depression.
Yet another reason to focus on the health of your microbiome!
The Microbiome and Obesity
There’s no question that gut issues can affect your metabolism.
For many people with gut dysfunction, they don’t feel like eating because their digestion is sluggish and they get bloated and gassy way too easily.
But, research has been showing that obesity and metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, increased body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels) may be associated with changes in the gut microbiome.
So, know that if you’re experiencing any of these conditions, and can’t figure out why, it might be related to the health of your gut bugs!
Studies have shown that the composition of the gut bacteria in mice affects both the mice’s ability to harvest energy from the food they eat, and how the energy is stored in their bodies.
This means that if your microbiome is not completely healthy, it could be causing you to store more of the calories from the food that you’re eating, instead of using it right away as energy, leading to potential weight gain.
But, a healthy microbiome has been shown to be protective against obesity and metabolic syndrome.
So, if you have any sort of dysbiosis or gut issue, or if you’re overweight, don’t worry, that’s not necessarily your destiny!
While improving the health of our microbiomes is not solely dependent on factors within our control, there are some steps we can take to improve our chances of healthy gut bacteria, and in turn improve our overall health and decrease our risk of developing disease.
Ways to Keep Your Microbiome Healthy
#1: Eat a diet high in plant based foods
I don’t recommend going full on vegan or vegetarian in order to keep your gut bacteria healthy.
But, making a conscious effort to include a variety of plant based foods in your diet will help to feed the good gut bugs, and keep the bad ones at bay.
Certain plant foods (such as brussels sprouts, asparagus, artichokes, and leeks) have fibers that are indigestible by humans, but do wonders to feed the good bacteria in your gut.
And well-fed bacteria are happy bacteria.
(This is the reason why many people with SIBO can’t tolerate some of these plant foods, because they provide food to the bacteria that are in the small intestine causing symptoms.)
But, if you don’t have SIBO, or if your SIBO symptoms are under control, then it would be so beneficial to include a serving or two of plant foods at every meal.
Your gut bacteria will thank you.
#2: Include probiotic foods in your diet
For the average person dealing with gut issues, I will most of the time recommend probiotic containing foods over probiotic supplements.
There are a few reasons for this (that I will probably get into in another blog post), some of them being cost, and diversity of probiotic strains.
Probiotic containing foods (such as raw sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and kimchi) help to boost your landscape of beneficial bacteria while you are eating those foods.
If you eat these foods in large enough quantities (say one serving at every meal), there is a chance that they could help to crowd out any dysbiosis or bad bacteria that you have hanging around in your gut.
Most fermented foods contain a larger diversity of bacteria than are found in supplements.
And when it comes to gut health, bacterial diversity is a sure fire way to keep everything healthy and running smoothly.
And, all of these foods can be made right in your own home for way less than you could buy them in stores.
#3: Manage your stress
If it seems like every blog post I write mentions something about managing stress, you’re probably not wrong.
I’ve learned through my own personal experience how critical stress management is to the health and vitality of my gut.
Stress has been shown to cause dysbiotic shifts in your microbiome.
And the only way to correct this imbalance, is to manage the stress.
Don’t get me wrong, stress management is NOT easy, I know.
But, if you want a microbiome that is functioning at its best, and doing everything it can to keep you healthy, you have to learn how to manage stress.
I am planning on writing a whole blog post on this topic soon, but for now some stress management techniques that I’ve found to be helpful are:
Yoga and meditation.
For me, making a daily yoga practice part of my routine has really helped to both soothe my body and quiet my mind (I use YogaGlo so I can do yoga at home and at my own pace).
Meditation has also helped get me though some serious bouts of anxiety and stress. It really helps to focus on breathing and visualization and enables me to get out of my own head.
I find that my mind is much less busy, and I am so much more relaxed after I meditate.
Reducing my time spent on social media.
Social media is a great tool. I use it to encourage and engage people going through similar health issues as myself, and to keep up with family and friends.
But it can also be a huge mind-warp and stressor in my life.
Let’s not pretend that we all don’t check our Instagrams every minute that passes after we make a new post, just to see how many likes or comments we get.
Social media has the same addiction like properties and effects on our brain as recreational drugs.
Not to mention that being so involved in other people’s lives (or what they want you to think is their real lives) can lead to feelings of jealousy and inadequacy in your own life (FOMO is real people!).
I’ve found that taking some time away from social media, even if just for a few hours really helps to declutter my mind, and helps me to relax and focus on other things.
Or maybe even try setting aside a day or two a week as your “social media free days.”
I bet you’ll feel so much more relaxed, calm, and clear headed.
Try it out!
The Bottom Line
Gut bacteria play a huge role in our overall health and wellbeing.
The health of our microbiome can directly impact the health of the rest of our body.
And while we have some control over the health and happiness of our gut bugs (eating the right foods, including probiotics in our diet, managing stress, etc.) there are just some things that are out of our control when it comes to our microbiome.
So, do what you can, but don’t worry and stress over the health of your gut bacteria.
Your body knows how to regulate itself, and if you give it a good solid foundation it will instinctually create an environment in your gut that leads to health and wellness in the rest of your body.