Your digestive system is home to a diverse array of bacteria. Some of these bacteria are good, some are bad, and some have no real effect at all. However, the gentle balance of these bacteria is necessary to the ecosystem in your gut known as the microbiome, and a healthy gut microbiome contributes a variety of potential health benefits. Learn how to improve your gut microbiome below.
Why is Your Gut Microbiome Important?
The average person’s microbiome comprises trillions of bacteria. While the exact makeup of this microbiome is unique from person to person, the common denominator is diversity. Healthier people are known to have a more diverse range of bacterial strains in their microbiomes, while unhealthier individuals have less diversity and often more bacteria associated with various health concerns.
The exact role of the microbiome still requires further study, but it is believed that the microbiome presents a whole host of potential benefits. The most direct of these benefits: metabolism and digestion. A healthy gut microbiome assists in the processes of breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and even synthesizing certain essential vitamins.
The gut microbiome’s potential effects extend beyond just the digestive system. It works with the immune system to protect against harmful bacteria and drive out invading bacteria.
The gut microbiome also has an intrinsic connection with the skin, sometimes referred to as the gut-skin axis. This axis suggests that the gut microbiome may act as a major regulator of skin health, potentially helping to prevent common disorders, including acne, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis.
Recent studies also suggest a bidirectional connection between the gut microbiome and the brain. This gut-brain axis suggests that the gut microbiome communicates and interacts with the central and enteric nervous systems, resulting in changes to emotion and cognition. For example, dysbiosis (imbalanced gut bacteria) is frequently associated with anxiety and depressive behaviors, while mood disorders frequently result in digestive issues.
How Your Gut Health Changes
The delicate balance of your gut microbiome can change based on a variety of factors. Food is the most obvious of these factors, but certain medications may also alter the composition of your gut flora. Antibiotics are the most prominent of these. While antibiotics are effective in neutralizing bacteria, they are not always discerning, resulting in the depletion of “good” bacteria.
Stress may also affect gut bacteria negatively, which suggests further evidence of the existence of the gut-brain axis.
How to Improve Gut Microbiome Health
The good news is you can take action to help improve the health of your microbiome.
Eat probiotic-rich foods
Probiotic-rich foods contain strains of good bacteria that your gut and body need. Most probiotic-rich foods comprise fermented foods, the most common of which include:
If you do go the route of probiotic-rich foods, make sure you read the label. Some of these foods undergo pasteurization, a process that kills off bacteria, including any probiotics that may have been added in. Check the labels for “unpasteurized” or specific names of bacterial strains added. Alternately, you can use probiotic supplements to improve gut microbiome health.
Eat more dietary fiber
Dietary fiber is made up of plant material that is generally undigestible by humans, but this makes it ideal for gut bacteria. Dietary fiber acts as a prebiotic. Unlike probiotics, which replenish gut bacteria, prebiotics work to feed the existing bacteria in your gut, allowing that bacteria to thrive and grow in numbers. Prebiotics may also help bacteria become more tolerant to changes in pH, temperature fluctuations, and other environmental conditions within the gut.
The key here is that dietary fiber is not normally digestible, meaning that it does not get broken down by the corrosive acids in the stomach. This is important as most of the bacteria of your gut microbiome reside in the large intestine. By resisting acids within the stomach, the fiber can travel to the large intestine relatively unscathed to feed the gut bacteria.
Dietary fiber appears in two types, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water turning into a gel-like substance, while insoluble fiber remains relatively intact throughout the digestive tract. Both may help gut bacteria, and both can be beneficial to your overall health. Good fiber-rich foods include:
- Whole grains
- Kale and other leafy greens
Eat less sugar and sweeteners
Research suggests that diets high in sugar may contribute to gut dysbiosis. Studies on artificial sweeteners also suggest a negative effect on gut bacteria. Try to keep your sugar intake in check and avoid foods that contain added sugars.
With some small changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can keep your gut microbiome happy and healthy.