Bacteria tend to get a bad rap- usually with good reason.
But not all bacteria are harmful.
Allow me to introduce you to your new best friend- actually 100 trillion of your new best friends.
The bacteria that call your GI system home.
Known as your gut flora or microbiota these microbes not only help you digest your food, they may be the hardest working part of your body.
They make up a complex ecosystem all within the confines of your intestines (mostly your large intestine)- there are upwards of 400 different kinds of bacteria living in harmony there!
While there are many commonalities among species of gut bacteria, each person has his or her own unique population of gut bacteria and they can vary depending on where you are, what you eat, your genetic makeup and even how much you exercise.
The Importance of gut health
What are all these little guys responsible for?
- They digest fiber into short-chain fatty acids, an important energy source and part of suppressing alien microorganisms that can lead to illness.
- They regulate metabolism
- They make vitamins (like vitamin K- which is responsible for blood clotting)
- They prevent infections by destroying potentially harmful bacteria.
What happens when the gut is unhappy?
When the delicate balance of healthy bacteria and potentially pathogenic organisms is upset the consequences can be disastrous:
- Nasty bacteria can colonize resulting in gas, bloating or diarrhea.
- Bacteria can escape into the body- resulting in abscesses or worse.
- Lack of vitamin K can result in a tendency to bleed.
If your gut bacteria are kept happy and healthy your body is able to resist many pathogens like salmonella.
However, antibiotics can suppress the normal flora, making you more susceptible to disease.
And here’s the kicker:
Keeping your bacteria balanced not only prevents the uncomfortable feelings associated with diarrhea, gas and bloating.
It also helps keep your whole body healthy.
An incredible 70% of your immune system is located within your gut. Your bacteria interact with your immune system and play an important role in immune system maintenance and function.
Allergies, autoimmune and inflammatory disorders may all be impacted by your friendly neighborhood bacteria.
According to a summary of studies put together by Harvard, your gut bacteria impact diseases from rheumatoid arthritis, protection from some cancers and heart disease.
Scientists have begun referring to the gut as your “second brain” because of its impact on digestion, thinking skills, memory and mental health.
Although what the “ideal” gut flora looks like has not been determined, different kinds of bacteria impact the body in different ways.
Obese and lean individuals have drastically different gut bacteria– lean people had greater diversity while obese individuals had less diversity.
Our gut bacteria alter our ability to store fat, balance our blood sugars and impact hunger and satiety cues which can set us up for obesity.
Certain bacteria in the gut have been associated with developing insulin resistance- a precursor to diabetes.
Shifts in the makeup of the gut flora can increase the risk of metabolic and cardiovascular disease.
So, how do you improve your gut health?
A healthier, plant centric diet (one that is loaded with fiber) feeds the healthy gut flora.
A prebiotic- passes through the gut relatively undigested until it reaches the small intestine. Once in the small intestine, the bacteria ferment and break down the fiber and are consequently rewarded with a delicious meal- an exchange that keeps the healthy bacteria flourishing.
To keep your gut bacteria well fed, aim for 20-30 grams of fiber a day, and be sure to increase it gradually to prevent any unpleasant side effects, like gas and bloating.
Foods high in probiotics
Like yogurt with active cultures, kombucha, naturally fermented sauerkraut and pickles, tempeh, tofu and more- introduce new and healthy bacteria to the gut, increasing biodiversity and boosting the growth of healthy, happy bacteria.
Taking a high-quality probiotic is another way to help diversify intestinal bacteria.
Getting adequate exercise and sleep, and managing stress levels can help keep our inner army working hard- fighting disease and keeping our weight under control. Keeping a routine also helps keep your gut healthy, those little bacteria don’t like change (perhaps you have noticed an unhappy gut on vacation…?)
What to avoid
Highly processed foods
For a myriad of reasons- but when it comes to gut health they have been linked to a less diverse gut flora. Less diverse gut flora equals a less healthy digestive system and more problems.
Another reason to avoid highly processed foods?
The emulsifiers that are found in many of them.
Emulsifiers and other food additives can have a negative impact on gut health and they may promote inflammation and inflammatory diseases.
Eating fewer processed foods also means less refined sugar.
There are lots of reasons to eat less sugar, and here’s another one: a diet high in sugar feeds the unhealthy bacteria in the gut, causing them to flourish and disturb the GI barrier causing inflammation or liver disease.
Incorporating a variety of fiber filled fruits and vegetables will help your gut bacteria to flourish while the Standard American Diet (or, SAD- a fitting acronym if ever there was one!) which is high in animal fats and low in fruits, vegetables and fiber prevent healthy bacteria from flourishing.
Stress and gut health
Another key thing to avoid?
While we all get stressed out from time to time, it’s important to find healthy ways to deal with that stress. Meditation, exercise and more can all help combat stress.
When we get stressed out, our gut is impacted (ever noticed how food just seems to sit, heavy and uncomfortable when you’re stressed?) and all that stress can keep your helpful gut inhabitants from doing their jobs.
One other thing to avoid?
Being a couch potato.
Exercise is incredibly beneficial for your gut health and promotes diversity among your microbiota.
(You knew this one was coming, right?)
Eating right and managing stress are important, but if you’re not exercising, your gut health suffers. Eating well, and taking care of your body- they go hand in hand when it comes to gut health!
What’s the bottom line?
Our GI tract is populated with trillions of powerful, friendly bacteria that help keep us thin and healthy- both mentally and physically.
Keeping them happy by exercising, eating right and getting plenty of fiber and probiotics means we live better, healthier lives!
If you suspect the foods you eat may be causing problems, then check out our Denver Nutritionist page and see if working with our Registered Dietitian might be right for you.