Demystifying Your Gut Health, Part One: What is The Microbiome

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Ever been advised to “follow your gut”? You probably took that to mean to listen to your intuition, or notice when that weird feeling in your stomach pops up. That’s just one of the ways we’ve been subtly connecting our gut with our brain over the past several centuries.

And now, that connection is being explored by scientists and medical professionals everywhere. In fact, some medical experts call the gut “the second brain,” and they’re exploring the way your gut health is connected to your mood, your physical health, and more. One way they’re doing that? By learning more about the microbiome, a.k.a. the center of your gut health.

Whatever health goals you’re working towards, improving the health of your microbiome will probably help you along the way. Here’s more about what the microbiome is, why it’s important, and how you can improve your gut health.

What is the microbiome?

The microbiome is the collection of microorganisms that live inside your body—tiny, microscopic things like bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Most of them live in a little pocket of your large intestine called the cecum. There are over a thousand species of bacteria in your body and roughly 40 trillion bacterial cells in your body, making the microbiome a huge influence on your health.

And before we get too far: yes, it’s normal and healthy to have that much bacteria in your body. The key is that you want a wide variety of bacteria in your microbiome, because some of this bacteria is actually good for you. Having a diverse group of bacteria in your body helps keep everything in balance.

For example, beneficial bacteria helps control your digestion, your immune system, and your brain health, among other things. They also multiply, so the bad bacteria (which would put you at risk of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or irritable bowel syndrome) doesn’t have space to grow.

How does the microbiome affect your health?

Short answer: in almost every way.

Long answer: The latest research shows that your brain and your gut are frequently in communication. Case in point: the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is a sub-section of the autonomic nervous system, and its neurons make sure the gastrointestinal tract is functioning. It’s constantly in communication with the brain. Your brain and your gut also communicate through molecules carried in the blood.

So what’s the deal with all this brain and gut back-and-forth? The way your gut, your brain, and your immune system interact has an impact on your overall physiology. Here’s a short list of all the things gut health has been linked to.

Weight gain

When your good bacteria and bad bacteria are unbalanced, it’s called dysbiosis—and it might contribute to weight gain. In fact, several identical twin studies have shown that when one twin is obese, the microbiomes look completely different (proving that a poor microbiome isn’t all genetics).

Intestinal disease

Naturally, it only makes sense that gut health has a big impact on intestinal diseases like Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). For example, microbes can produce gas and other chemicals, which lead to discomfort if they’re overproducing. That can cause the bloating, cramps, and abdominal pain synonymous with IBS.

Heart health

The gut microbiome helps promote “good” cholesterol, while unhealthy bacteria can contribute to heart disease (specifically, blocked arteries that can cause heart attacks or strokes).

Mental health

With all the messages going between the brain and the gut, mental health and gut health are inextricably linked. Some types of bacteria can produce neurotransmitters (serotonin, for example, is mostly made in the gut). Other studies have linked poor gut health to depression.

How can you improve your gut health?

There are plenty of lifestyle changes you can implement to improve the health of your microbiome. Some examples might be:

Eating a well-balanced diet

Remember how we said it’s important to have diverse bacteria in your gut? One way to achieve that is by eating a diverse diet. Legumes, beans, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and fruit are high in fiber and particularly beneficial for gut health.

Add fermented foods

Fermentation is when microorganisms (like bacteria) convert the sugars and starches in a food into alcohol or organic acids. The result? Foods that are rich in probiotics, like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir. Add one or two servings of these foods to your daily diet to see benefits.

Limit artificial sweeteners

Some artificial sweeteners might stimulate the growth of that “bad bacteria” and subsequently increase your blood sugar.

Avoid smoking and excessive drinking

Just like these habits are bad for the rest of your body, they’re bad for your gut health. Cutting out smoking and alcohol can help you towards an overall healthier lifestyle.

Build healthy habits

Similarly, building healthy habits like regular movement, hydration, and sleep can impact your overall health. In that sense, these lifestyle changes will improve your gut health too.

What’s next for gut health

The research on gut health is only just beginning, but one thing’s for sure: your gut health is individual to you. Your diet, your lifestyle, and your habits all have an impact on the diversity and overall health of your microbiome. Because of that, in order to maximize your gut health, you’ll need a plan that’s specific to you.

Now that you’re an expert in the microbiome, you might be wondering—how does precision healthcare come into play? With precision healthcare, you’re able to take your individual data—your biometrics, your genomics, your blood tests, and your lifestyle factors—and build a healthcare strategy that’s unique to you. If optimized gut health is one of your goals, we’ll use your results and create a custom plan to help you on the path towards a diversified, robust microbiome. All you have to do is follow your gut.