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Why The Gut Microbiome Is Central To Your Health.

Your gut microbiome consists of trillions of microbes including bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microscopic living things. The bacteria within your large intestine have been the most studied to date.

At the most recent count, there are up to 1,000 species of bacteria in the human gut microbiome. It is thought that these bacteria function together as an ‘extra organ’ that is roughly the weight of your brain and play a huge role in your health.

How The Gut Microbiome Effects Your Body.

The gut microbiome begins to affect your body the moment you are born.

You are first exposed to microbes when you pass through your mother’s birth canal. However, new evidence suggests that babies may come in contact with some microbes while inside the womb.

As you grow, your gut microbiome begins to diversify, meaning it starts to contain many different types of microbial species. Higher microbiome diversity is considered good for your health.

Interestingly, the food you eat affects the diversity of your gut bacteria.

As your microbiome grows, it affects your body in a number of ways, for instance:

  • Digesting fibre: Certain bacteria digest fibre, producing short-chain fatty acids, which are important for gut health. Fibre may help prevent weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and the risk of cancer.
  • Helping control your immune system: The gut microbiome also controls how your immune system works. By communicating with immune cells, the gut microbiome can control how your body responds to infection.
  • Helping control brain health: New research suggests that the gut microbiome may also affect the central nervous system, which controls brain function
  • Gaining weight: An imbalance of healthy and unhealthy microbes is sometimes called gut dysbiosis, and it may contribute to weight gain. Several well-known studies have shown that the gut microbiome differed completely between identical twins, one of whom was obese and one of whom was healthy. This demonstrated that differences in the microbiome were not genetic.
  • May help control blood sugar and reduce risk of diabetes: The gut microbiome also may help control blood sugar, which could affect the risk of type 1 and 2 diabetes. One recent study examined 33 infants who had a genetically high risk of developing type 1 diabetes. It found that the diversity of the microbiome dropped suddenly before the onset of type 1 diabetes. It also found that levels of a number of unhealthy bacterial species increased just before the onset of type 1 diabetes.

Another study found that even when people ate the exact same foods, their blood sugar could vary greatly. This may be due to the types of bacteria in their guts.

How To Improve Gut Microbiome Health

Understanding the microbiome and its impact on your body’s health is great but the key is knowing what to do to improve your microbiome balance.

  • Eat a diverse range of foods: This can lead to a diverse microbiome, which is an indicator of good gut health. In particular, legumes, beans and fruit contain lots of fibre and can promote the growth of healthy Bifidobacteria 
  • Eat fermented foods: Fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and kefir all contain healthy bacteria, mainly Lactobacilli, and can reduce the amount of disease-causing species in the gut.
  • Eat prebiotic foods: Prebiotics are a type of fibre that stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria. Prebiotic-rich foods include artichokes, bananas, asparagus, oats and apples.
  • Eat whole grains: Whole grains contain lots of fibre and beneficial carbs like beta-glucan, which are digested by gut bacteria to benefit weight, cancer risk, diabetes and other disorders.
  • Eat foods rich in polyphenols: Polyphenols are plant compounds found in red wine, green tea, dark chocolate, olive oil and whole grains. They are broken down by the microbiome to stimulate healthy bacterial growth.
  • Take antibiotics only when necessary: Antibiotics kill many bad and good bacteria in the gut microbiome, possibly contributing to weight gain and antibiotic resistance. Thus, only take antibiotics when medically necessary.
  • Limit sugar and artificial sweetener intake: Sugar and artificial sweeteners can encourage growth of bacteria that are not helpful in maintaining optimal gut health, creating a situation of gut dysbiosis with a multitude of health impacts.

It’s hard to do everything you need at once, so layer each action one on top of the other over a few weeks, this will make it easier to nudge your gut health in the right direction without it feeling overwhelming.

If you’d like to read in further depth about this topic a great British Medical Journal article can be found here.

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