As we ingest food and water, microbes enter our bodies. But the gastric acid (acid released to digest food) in our stomach destroys a lot of the pathogens (microbes that cause diseases). The ones that escape the gastric acid move down to the gastrointestinal tract. They are referred to as the gut microbiome.
The microbiome consists of microbes that are both helpful and potentially harmful. Most are symbiotic (where both the body and microbiome benefit), and some are pathogenic (promote diseases). In a healthy body, symbiotic and pathogenic microbes coexist without problems. But if there is a disturbance in the balance brought by infectious illnesses, diet changes, or prolonged use of bacteria-destroying medications like antibiotics, the protective or beneficial microbes get killed. Hence, the harmful microbes will outnumber the helpful ones, making your body more susceptible to disease.
How Gut Microbiome Benefit The Body
The gut microbiome plays a crucial role in digesting food and helps absorb and synthesise nutrients. They are also essential in processes beyond your gut, such as metabolism, body weight, immune regulation, brain functions, and mood. For example, the key enzymes needed to form vitamin B12 are only found in bacteria, not plants and animals. In addition, more complex carbohydrates like starches and fibres are not easily digested. Only the microbes in the gut can break them down with their digestive enzymes. It will then cause the production of fatty acids that the body can use as a nutrient source, which is beneficial for muscle function and the prevention of chronic diseases.
As a baby, your gut microbiome helps enhance your gut immune system. Then as an adult, it helps maintain the immune system. The microbiome of a healthy person also provides protection from pathogenic organisms (those that cause diseases) that enter the body through eating or drinking contaminated food or water.
Factors That Influence The Gut Microbiome
Numerous factors can disturb the balance of the gut microbiome.
- Diet. The type of food can significantly impact the balance of microbes. A high-fat but low-fibre diet is linked to a decrease in the total bacterial count and beneficial probiotics. Their bacterial counts increase with the amount of fibre in your diet.
- Exposure to pathogens. Infection is one of the most common causes of dysbiosis (imbalance of the gut microbiome). Pathogenic bacteria colonise the gastrointestinal tract, inducing inflammation. In addition, pathogens can outnumber symbiotic bacteria, resulting in the overgrowth of infectious bacteria.
- Age. Microbial diversity increases in early childhood and stabilises at age 16. After the age of 70, the weakened immune system and changes in physical activity, digestion, and nutrient intake can affect the microbial composition.
- Medication. Specific medications like antibiotics and proton pump inhibitors (medicines that reduce stomach acid) can alter the microbial composition.
- Tobacco use. Cigarette smoking has been linked to changes in the composition of the gut microbiome. Profound and robust microbial shifts have been found before and after smoking cessation.
- Physical activity. Habitual exercise is associated with increased abundance and diversity of the gut microbiome. It also boosts the production of beneficial fatty acids.
Ways To Improve Your Gut Microbiome
Here are some easy ways to improve your gut health for increased metabolism, better digestion, decreased inflammation, and lowered risk of chronic diseases.
Eat a variety of whole grains, nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Oats, barley, and other whole grains have fibre that promotes a healthy gut microbiome once gut bacteria metabolise it. Consuming more whole grains has increased the types and numbers of symbiotic microbes in our gut. The same is true of nuts, so choose a variety of walnuts, pistachios, or almonds. Fresh fruits and vegetables serve as nutrition for the microbes in our gut.
Add fibre to your diet. Make sure you are eating enough fibre. It helps keep your bowel movements regular, lower cholesterol levels, and keep your blood sugar levels from increasing. High-fibre foods include chickpeas, lentils, berries, and whole-wheat pasta.
Consider fermented foods. Fermented foods such as yoghurt, kimchi, and kombucha have more good bacteria to improve your gut. They contain high amounts of beneficial bacteria. Consider adding them to your diet. They can also lower the intestine’s pH level, decreasing the chance of harmful microbes outcompeting beneficial microbes. Having good bacteria in your gut microbiome also generates vitamins like B12 and K.
Maintain a regular meal schedule. A well-balanced diet is not enough to regulate the number of microbes in the gut. It is also important when to eat. The gut microbiome has its circadian rhythm (its processes over the course of 24 hours). Your microbiome is not likely geared up to metabolise nutrients whenever you eat late at night. Try to stick to a regular meal schedule.
Avoid long-term intake of certain medications like antibiotics and acid-reducing agents. Antibiotics destroy both pathogens and good microbes. Prolonged use would result in gut imbalance. On the other hand, long-term intake of acid-reducing agents would elevate the pH level in the stomach, allowing ingested pathogens to have a better chance of survival, which can disturb the microbial balance.
Consider probiotic and prebiotic supplements. Prebiotics, which can be naturally found in apples and green bananas, are a type of fibre that supports the growth of healthy bacteria. Meanwhile, probiotics are live, good bacteria that can help maintain a balanced gut microbiome. It is important to note that these supplements are fragile. Many require refrigeration to protect them from factors that can break down their effectiveness, such as heat, oxygen, light, and humidity.