The gut microbiome is an ecosystem of organisms, such as bacteria, yeast, fungi, viruses, and protozoans that live in our gut. Research suggests that the microbiome is linked to our mood, brain disorders, autism, immune function, inflammation, allergies, weight, and metabolism.
Gut health and gut micobiome are terms that are frequently interchanged, but what do they actually mean? Gut is another word for our gastrointestinal or digestive tract, it is a complex system. Gut health generally refers to the balance of microorganisms that live in our digestive tract, otherwise known as our gut microbiome.
Inside our gastrointestinal tract are trillions of micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. We have approximately the same number of micro-organisms in our gut, as we do human cells in our entire body, but only 10% to 20% of the bacteria in our gut is shared with anyone else.
What are gut microbiome?
Microbiomes differ significantly from person to person, depending on our diet, lifestyle and other factors and are influenced by everything from our health to our appetite, weight, and moods. Despite being one of the most researched parts of our body, there is still a lot that is unknown.
Our microbiome are responsible for aiding digestion and the absorption of nutrients, which helps to regulate things like bile and vitamin levels and with supporting our immune system. The health of our gut has a huge impact on our overall health.
Much research is being conducted in this field, and we have recently discovered how an imbalance in gut bacteria can contribute to chronic diseases like IBS, diabetes, and carcinoma. Studies have also suggested links to our mental health and depression, cholesterol levels and obesity.
The importance of diet
Our diets play a major part on our gut microbiome. Research has found that a typical Western diet is high in animal fat and protein and low in fibre, with an increased production of cancer-causing compounds and inflammation. The Mediterranean diet on the other hand is high in fibre, low in red meat, and has been found to have anti-inflammatory effects and to improve our immune system.
- It is important to eat a balanced diet of whole foods. Most people eat too little fibre – found in wholegrains, nuts, pulses, fruit, and vegetables. Many people advocate a plant-based diet to promote gut health, and there is evidence to support this however we don’t need to be completely vegan.
- Cut back on processed foods – processed fast and convenience foods are high in salt, sugar, fat, and additives. These can disrupt our gut microbiome and have the potential to add bad bacteria as well as reducing good bacteria.
- Eat slowly and regularly.
- Reduce stress – stress is often seen as a mental concern but can be damaging to our entire body. Periods of stress can upset the balance of our digestive tract, worsening existing problems and creating new ones.
- Get a good night’s sleep – regular sleep is one of the most important steps we can take, to care for our health inside and out. 7 – 9 hours is the recommended amount of sleep.
- Drink less alcohol – alcohol can produce more acid and upset the balance of our gut microbiome.
- Prebiotics and probiotics – probiotics are healthy bacteria, prebiotics feed our healthy bacteria. Taking supplements that are rich in pre and probiotics can help with poor gut health such as diarrhoea.
How our gut affects our overall wellbeing
The microbes in our gut have been linked with everything from arthritis to autism, now scientists believe that they can also be used to predict our future health through revealing the presence of diseases, as well as our longevity.
Gut microbiotas play a major role in the health and function of our GI tract, with evidence that conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often coincide with altered microbiota. It also plays a much wider role in our health and this is largely determined in the first few years of our life.
Our microbiomes start developing when we are born. Babies delivered by natural birth have been found to have a higher gut bacterial count than those delivered by Caesarean section because of the contact they make with their mother’s vaginal and intestinal bacteria. There is also a difference in the microbiomes of babies fed by breast and by bottle.
Scientists are getting closer to understanding how the gut can be used to treat disease. One of the newest treatments in the field is faecal microbiota transplants, where a healthy person’s microbiota is put into a patient’s gut. This procedure is used to treat antibiotic-resistant intestinal bacteria which can infect the bowel and cause diarrhoea. Once scientists gain a clear understanding of what is healthy in different ethnic groups and age groups, they can then also profile a person and see how their gut varies and what this is related to – it could be diet, environment, or genetic predispositions to certain diseases.
Antibiotics are known to alter our gut microbiota. The gut is an environment where harmless and beneficial bacteria are in very close contact with pathogens that cause infections. Normally these pathogens do not associate with DNA that can transfer between bacteria, which means that there is no immediate risk of spreading genes from normal bacteria to pathogens. Overuse of antibiotics however changes this environment, leading to a lowering of our immunity.
The health of our gut is also closely linked to the health of our brain. Further advances are being made into how microbes can be used to produce neurotransmitters to treat psychiatric and neurologic disorders linked to our microbiomes, including Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
You can appreciate how important gut health is to leading a happier and healthier life.