What is a microbiome and what does it do? What damages the microbiome and how does this lead to disease?
We’re about to get into all that and more, but first I want to drop some fun facts about this incredible ecosystem living inside your gut.
Your gut microbiome is unique to you. Everyone has a different variation of gut flora that’s influenced by lifestyle habits including diet, sleep, stress, and physical activity. Early development of the microbiome begins at birth, and if you were breastfed, you inherited a strong foundation of microbes as the bacteria passes from mother to baby through breastmilk. Once foods are introduced into the gut and you’re exposed to chemicals in the outside world, your gut microbiome starts to evolve and host a diverse collection of microorganisms.
What do these organisms do? A microbiome is a community of trillions of organisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses, living in a common space, ideally working together to promote health. If these organisms are not in balance diseases, like obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and auto-immune disorders, can result.
Weighing up to five pounds, this ecosystem in your gut is your protection from disease. Take your skin, for example, there’s a microbiome of organisms living on your skin that protect you from toxins, infections, and other invaders. Bacteria on the skin act as a barrier and without them we wouldn’t be able to survive. Your gut microbiome is the same, just different types of organisms with a variety of functions for digestion, immune health, blood sugar regulation, and more!
- Considering the influx of allergies, auto-immune disease, and autism rates, especially in the youth, and given the role of the microbiome, it’s not unlikely that our modernization of food, processed food, and fast food, has influenced the development of these conditions. More children are formula-fed these days and infant formula does not offer benefits to building the microbiome that you would naturally get in breastmilk. Instead, many baby formulas often have refined sugars that feed into developing a poor ecosystem. This creates a foundation of unhealthy gut bacteria and if not exposed to “good” bacteria in the earlier years of life children can be at increased risk of future diseases. Feeding babies with large amounts of formula early in life correlates with an increased risk for childhood obesity.
What Are You Feeding Your Microbiome?
A healthy gut comes from healthy food.
Your microbiome wants some love and I’m gonna convince you why you should start prioritizing your gut health. Your gut is referred to as your second brain. The enteric nervous system in your gut communicates with your brain all day long and has a lot of influence on your mood and overall health. I like to call this the gut-brain-highway, as your brain can send signals like hunger to your gut, but your gut can also send signals to your brain, influencing your mental health.
Your gut organisms create a protective barrier inside of your GI tract, blocking harmful pathogens from getting absorbed into the bloodstream. They’re also responsible for the digestion of food, absorption of nutrients, and creation of vitamins like vitamin K, folic acid, and various B vitamins. Since these microorganisms are directly involved in immune, endocrine, and nervous system function, an imbalance in gut bacteria can cause weight gain, mood changes, and metabolic disease.
Your gut microbiome plays a critical role in your health – and your weight! In fact, the type of microbes in your gut can determine the SIZE of your gut.
What can happen from an impaired microbiome?
If your protective barrier isn’t intact, harmful pathogens can get into areas of your body they are not supposed to be in. Inflammation is at the root of the problem. Inflammation from certain foods, chemicals, and toxins can cause gut swelling and create open areas in the microbiome where toxins can seep directly into the blood. When your microbiome is not in balance, illness and disease can result, as your defensive lining becomes permeable allowing toxins in, and improper digestion and absorption of food do not occur. This can result in nutritional deficiencies, like iodine, which regulates thyroid function. Also, high dopamine levels from excess sugar intake can inhibit the role of the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), thus affecting the thyroid even more.
Research shows that damage to your gut flora possibly can lead to:
- Weight gain/obesity
- Skin problems like acne & eczema
- Auto-immune diseases like thyroid disorders and rheumatoid arthritis
- Mood Disorders like anxiety & depression
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease and other bowel disorders
- Type 2 Diabetes & more!
What can damage your microbiome?
Typically, our diet can either feed healthy or unhealthy bacteria depending on the types of foods we eat. If you eat a diet high in fast food, sodas, and other processed foods, it will cause an overgrowth of bad gut bacteria, which can lead to weight gain and related diseases. The other major contributing factor is an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria. This can happen for a variety of different reasons.
- Diet: SUGAR, processed foods, GMO, frequent strict dieting
- Frequent use of Antibiotics or Antifungals
- Rx: medication for acid reflux and chronic NSAID use impairs mucosal lining
- Environmental Toxins
- Chemicals/Dyes in processed foods
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Sleep Deprivation
- High Stress
- Red Meat
- No Variety in Diet
- Sedentary Lifestyle
Restoring Your Gut
Your diet has the biggest impact on your gut flora. What you feed your gut is also feeding your bacteria and unhealthy bacteria thrive on junk food. Healthy bacteria eat fiber from whole foods and whole grains. Avoiding sugar and processed foods will reduce the amount of inflammation in the gut.
That being said, stress and sleeping patterns can also affect your gut health. As well as lifestyle habits like smoking or excessive alcohol intake.
Your mental state and emotions are also connected to the gut as this is where your enteric nervous system resides. One of the most common bowel disorders, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), is likely connected to the gut-brain axis causing bowel symptoms with changes in emotions. Anxiety or excitement can send you running to the bathroom frequently for many people suffering from IBS. If this resonates with you, check out What is IBS?
Tips to Heal Your Gut
- Diet: a diverse variety of foods, increasing whole foods like fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fermented foods, and high fiber foods like beans and legumes. Avoid/Limit: processed grains and refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, and soda. Avoid foods that aggravate your gut. May consider supplementing with fiber, collagen, super greens, and/or probiotics. See my favorites below to shop!
- Probiotic/Prebiotic: foods high in probiotics and prebiotics and/or supplement can restore healthy bacteria and ease inflammation to help manage and prevent chronic disease.
- Collagen/Greens: Collagen helps to build and repair gut lining to block pathogens from getting into the bloodstream. As we age, we don’t make collagen as fast and the gut lining can become weaker. Supergreens can provide the gut with a variety of nutritious gut-healing foods in powder form to be easily consumed. Supergreens can offer immune support with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
- Exercise: Moderate physical activity can reduce inflammation in the gut and help repair the protective lining.
- Sleep Hygiene & Stress Management: lack of sleep increases stress on the body, producing more cortisol. During sleep is also when the body repairs itself, especially in the gut while you’re not digesting food.
- Avoid/Limit Smoking & Alcohol: Nicotine drastically alters gut organisms and increases the risk for GERD, peptic ulcers, Crohn’s disease, and gallstones. Alcohol converts to sugar feeding bad gut bacteria and killing the healthy gut microbes.
- Avoid Dieting: strict dieting quickly alters your gut flora and although you may lose weight initially, once you resume your previous eating patterns, your gut resumes normal bacteria levels as the same as before you started dieting.
- Fasting: Longer times between meals allow your gut to heal and repair itself. While it’s not digesting food it has time to calm inflammation and work on damaged areas of the GI lining. Just be sure it’s right for you and your body.
- Get Tested: Talk to your healthcare provider about a food sensitivity test, allergy panel, and/or getting tested for common GI infections like H.pylori.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.