As you run your hands over your smooth skin, imagine millions of microscopic organisms thriving on the cells that make up that skin. Then imagine trillions of organisms crawling on your scalp, around your ears and inside your stomach. While it’s not something that most people think about often, it’s a reality for every living creature. Your body is home to a unique microbiome.
What Is a Microbiome?
A microbiome is a small ecosystem comprised of microorganisms supported by one stable host. Those organisms may include fungi, bacteria and even viruses. For the human microbiome, each body serves as the host. The microorganisms aren’t detected by the naked eye and you may never feel them move, but it’s important to acknowledge that they live within you.
In fact, it is now believed that the human body hosts approximately eight microbes for every cell in the body. Researchers are still working to identify, classify and name these microbes, but it is believed that humans host more than 1,000 types of bacteria. There are likely more than 100 trillion microbes living on and within your body right now.
What About the Gut Microbiome?
When we talk about the “gut microbiome,” we’re referencing the smaller microbiome that exists within your gut alone. Each human has a unique gut microbiome. While we all carry the same types of microbes, the concentration and mixture varies from person to person and even changes over time. Research is showing that the human body interacts with microbes living within the gut in important ways, and those interactions have a direct impact on our health.
Benefits of a Healthy Gut Microbiome
To get a better understanding of the importance of the gut microbiome, take a look at this list of ways that the microbes in your gut are likely impacting your body directly and your quality of life indirectly, based on one in-depth study published in the journal Current Opinion in Gastroenterology in January of 2015.
- Some microbes protect your body from pathogens.
- Some microbes contribute to your metabolic functioning. This is a fancy term that simply refers to chemical reactions that keep each cell of your body alive and functioning properly.
- Microbes have a big influence on your immune system and can actually make it stronger and more resistant to “bad” bacteria or viruses.
- Microbes in the gut, commonly referred to as gut microbiota or flora, help your body digest food. Some foods would remain indigestible to all humans without certain microbes breaking down complex carbohydrates in those foods. Your gut flora essentially consume their share of your food, creating absorbable nutrients that your body uses to thrive.
- Microorganisms are believed to energize the intestinal mucosa barrier, which is a secondary lining under the skin that blocks out pathogens and helps the body handle food sources to which some people are sensitive or allergic. By interacting with the intestinal mucosa, microbes are believed to help control immune responses from the gut.
- It is believed that microbes in the gut have the ability to promote immune homeostasis throughout the body, thus making it a powerful weapon against many medical conditions involving chronic inflammation. Further research is needed to determine how this works and how we can manipulate gut microbes for maximum results, but this explains why the gut microbiome is so important to people suffering from gut and intestinal inflammation.
These are just some of the ways that your body interacts with microorganisms on a daily basis to maintain your health, fight disease and simply stay alive. Ongoing medical research is now exploring how we can create stronger, healthier microbiomes to promote greater health and lower our vulnerabilities to disease.
To give you an idea of how powerful this research is for all humans, consider this short list of the medical conditions that we may one day treat through the gut rather than medication:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammable bowel disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Clostridium difficile infection (CDI)
- Metabolic disorders
- Ulcerative colitis
- Acute infectious diarrhea
- Celiac disease and gluten intolerance
Researchers are already experimenting with fecal transplants that place healthy gut flora into sick patients to help improve or eliminate symptoms of some medical conditions. The use of probiotics is a less extreme way to place those healthy flora into your gut, and we’ll recommend a couple high-quality probiotics in just a moment.
Why would you want to intentionally fill your gut with more microorganisms? Researchers believe that an imbalance in gut flora gives more power to “bad” microbiota and could play a critical role in the development of disease markers. In other words, you’re more vulnerable to disease when your beneficial microbiota are overpowered by destructive bacteria.
Signs Your Gut Needs Attention
Everything that we’ve discussed so far boils down to a high probability that an imbalance in gut microbes will put you at greater risk of developing many diseases. It may also lead to more symptoms of gluten intolerance and digestive discomforts. If you have an imbalance, you have more bad bacteria than good, and we’ll talk about how to correct that problem in just a moment.
For now, go through this checklist to see if you may have a serious gut imbalance that could impact your health in a negative manner:
- You suffer unexplained bloating, diarrhea, constipation or other digestive issues.
- You suffer from acid reflux.
- You’ve been told that you have ulcers inside your colon, or you suffer from ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease. These conditions are closely associated with gut flora imbalances, and many GI doctors now recommend probiotics to all patients with these conditions.
- You’re always tired and fatigued.
- You experience painful gas or general sensitivity in your abdomen, and there is no other explanation for the sensitivity.
- You’ve been told that you’re intolerant or allergic to gluten. Other food allergies may qualify here as well, but don’t assume that balancing your gut microbiome will eliminate all food intolerance, sensitivity or allergy. There simply isn’t enough research to prove that, but some people find that healing their gut does at least reduce symptoms or slow the frequency of painful flareups.
Many people believe that medical conditions like eczema, acne, depression and anxiety are all related to imbalances in the gut. Just as healthy gut flora are believed to decrease intestinal and gut inflammation, there’s a good chance that they can stop inflammation in other areas of the body.
5 Steps to a Healthy Gut Microbiome
Now that you know how important your gut microbiome is, are you ready to take action? The following steps will help correct any imbalance that you may suffer from today. Keep following these steps for life to ensure that your gut is as healthy and balanced as possible. You may lower your risk of developing serious medical conditions in the future.
If you’ve already been diagnosed with a medical condition, this is a good way to start healing your body naturally. You still want to work closely with your medical team to ensure that your condition is properly treated and controlled. Consider these easy-to-follow steps a healthy supplement to your overall treatment plan.
1. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.
This may sound overly simplistic, but it is the first step to increasing the number of beneficial microbiota inside your gut. When listing the amazing things that your gut flora can do for your body earlier on this page, we touched on the fact that these microbes turn indigestible carbohydrates into nutrients that we can absorb. That was in reference to many plant-sourced foods, including raw vegetables.
If you aren’t consuming fresh plant matter daily, you aren’t feeding those beneficial gut microbes. They depend on you to supply the fiber and complex carbohydrates so that they can eat their share. They return the favor by allowing your body to absorb important nutrients from those foods.
2. Take a high-quality probiotic.
It’s even better if you take your probiotics with raw vegetables or leafy greens. You’re placing more healthy microbiota into your gut and instantly feeding them a nutritious meal. Your body will absorb more nutrients from those foods, allowing you to thrive along with your beneficial gut flora.
How do you select a quality probiotic? It was once believed that the best probiotics are stored in the refrigerator, but that isn’t always the case today. Most microbes are sensitive to heat and moisture, so storing them in the fridge should keep more of your microbiota alive long enough to make it into your gut. The good news is that there are now some non-refrigerated probiotics that are of high quality, but it’s important to use them before their expiration date to ensure that you aren’t consuming a capsule full of dead microbes.
Beyond considering refrigeration, Dr. Oz recommends finding probiotics that contain the best bacteria for medical conditions that you suffer. For instance, probiotics that contain Lactobacillus Rhamnosus are believed to fight viral and chemical infections. Lactobacillus microbes are what you get from yogurt, and this is one of the most popular species for general use to improve your overall health and strengthen your immune system.
Dr. Oz also recommends looking at the label to ensure that the probiotic species listed on the front label are also listed on the nutrition label on the back of the bottle. This is a fast way to ensure that your probiotic really contains the microbes that your body needs. Not all probiotics will list specific strains on the front label, but they should make an appearance on the nutrition label.
To help dig through the overcrowded probiotic market, we put together a list of our favorite probiotics. They’re all available online, so you don’t have to hunt them down in your local area.
- NatureMyst Controlled-Release Probiotics – This proprietary blend of probiotics includes 18 strains of microbiota, including 10 strains of Lactobacillus microbes. You don’t have to keep it in the refrigerator, and you will receive 50 billion live cultures. This is a gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO probiotic.
- NewRhythm Probiotics – This proprietary blend of probiotics contains 20 microbiota strains, including at least 11 Lactobacillus microbes. It contains 50 billion live cultures and is resistant to stomach acid. It’s designed to release the bacteria slowly throughout the day rather than dumping them all in at once.
- Digestive Advantage Probiotics – If you want to take advantage of advanced technology, this is the probiotic for you. The microbiota are enclosed in a protein shell that resists stomach acid, allowing more of the microbes to survive their entrance into your gut.
3. Add fermented foods to your diet.
Remember when we talked about microbes in your gut breaking down complex carbohydrates so that vegetables and other high-fiber foods are digestible for us humans? Go back to the list of functions that healthy microbiota perform inside the gut if you don’t remember. We’ll wait right here until you’re ready to continue.
It turns out that fermented foods already contain those digestible nutrients, so you maximize your body’s nourishment by consuming these foods. Fermentation is a simple process that uses yeast, bacteria or another healthy microorganism to convert carbohydrates into those easily digestible food sources. If you’ve ever enjoyed a container of yogurt, you’ve consumed at least one fermented food.
Not only are you consuming highly nutritious foods in an easily absorbable format, but fermented foods fill your stomach with more healthy microbiota. Think of it as a natural way to supplement the probiotics that you’re already taking daily. You are taking probiotics or ordering them soon, right?
If you aren’t sure how to get started with these foods, consider this quick list of the best fermented foods for your gut microbiome:
- Kefir – It may sound strange, but this is a fermented food created from milk. You consume it in drink form, and it has a sour taste. Think of it as yogurt in a more liquid form.
- Kimchi – This is basically pickled cabbage. It’s popular in Korea but is now in high demand by doctors and many health-conscious consumers.
- Sauerkraut – This is another way to ferment cabbage for the health benefits.
- Tempeh – This is fermented soybeans. It’s already popular with many vegans, so it’s one of the more accessible fermented foods on the market today.
One great thing about fermented foods is that you can make them at home, and they’re inexpensive. We highly recommend the book Fermented Vegetables by Christopher Shockey because it’s loaded with recipes that allow you to make fermented food delicious.
4. Eliminate sugar from your diet.
This is a big step for many people, but it’s one of the best ways to maintain balance in your gut. Sugar feeds the unhealthy bacteria that sabotage your health, making it all too easy for those destructive microbes to overtake your healthy gut flora. Cut the sugar, and you eliminate a major food source for microbes that put your health at risk.
In addition to sugar, you should limit or avoid foods that turn to sugar after consumption. We’re talking about simple or refined carbohydrates and most processed foods. You don’t have to do this all at once. Take baby steps to slowly eliminate the sugars from your diet.
Instead of focusing on foods that you can no longer eat, focus on healthy replacements. Instead of cookies, cakes and pies for dessert, maybe you will start eating fresh berries or a bowl of fruit salad to take care of that sweet craving. Instead of making white rice for dinner, go for long or whole grain. Every substitution that you make is a point in favor of a balanced gut microbiome.
5. Find a form of exercise that you enjoy, and do it regularly. Daily is preferred.
Did you think we were going to let you off the hook without encouraging you move more? Your body is made for movement, and the term “move it or lose it” is the absolute truth when it comes to your muscles. Some research has also found that exercise has a positive impact on gut flora, giving you even more reason to fire up those muscles on a daily basis.
You don’t have to train for a marathon or join a competitive CrossFit gym to take advantage of these exercise benefits. Start by strapping a FitBit on your arm and increasing your daily step count each week. If you want to run, we highly recommend the Couch to 5K Running Program because it’s easy to follow and you can easily change the plan to fit your current fitness level. For instance, you can repeat each week two or three times if you don’t feel ready to move on.
Your Gut Microbiome – Final Thoughts
Have you noticed that many of the steps to improving your gut microbiome are easy to follow? Adding more yogurt into your diet or learning how to ferment vegetables are accomplishments that nearly everyone can achieve. Any doctor will support your efforts to take a walk each day or stay away from sugar.
You don’t have to do anything radical to improve your microbiome. Pick up some quality probiotics, and let’s get started.