Let's start at the beginning -- what exactly is the "gut microbiome"?
A microbiome is the community of microorganisms that can usually be found living together in any given habitat. In the case of the gut microbiome this means the trillions of micro-organisms like bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses living together in your small and large intestine (also known as “the gut.”) Though it may sound strange to hear we have bacteria and fungi living in our bodies, it is normal and even—surprise!—beneficial to our health when those microbes live in harmony. We each have our own unique network of microbes, which we begin to develop as infants and continue to develop as we age through environmental exposures and our diet patterns. The key to a healthy microbiome is a symbiotic relationship between the micro-organisms: a smaller number of pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes peacefully coexist with a larger quantity of healthy microbes. Disturbances in this delicate balance can be caused by prolonged use of antibiotics, illness or infection, and poor food choices over time such disturbances in the gut can negatively impact health.
The Microbiome and Your Health
The microbiome plays such a key role in our health and body function that some researchers refer to the microbiome as an organ itself! The microbiome can stimulate the immune system and help control how your body responds to infection. A healthy gut breaks down potentially harmful food compounds as well as harmful bacteria that are introduced to the body through contaminated food or water.
The microbiome also synthesizes certain vitamins, including B vitamins and vitamin K, and amino acids. New research indicates that the microbiome may play a role in mental health because it produces 90 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate our emotions. It also produces the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety.
How to Build a Better Microbiome
- Eat More Prebiotics: Prebiotics are plant fibers that are food for good gut bacteria. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains like oats and farro to promote the growth of good gut bacteria. Try these recipes:
- Eat More Probiotics: Probiotics are live, healthy microorganisms found in food. You can find probiotics in fermented foods like yogurt and kombucha. If you’re reading food labels, fermented foods with live active cultures will state the strain of bacteria it contains (for example, Lactobacillus bulgaricus or B. animallis) and the number of microorganisms per serving. Some common fermented foods may not actually contain probiotics baking or heat treating can kill the bacteria (think sourdough bread). Try these recipes:
Do I Need a Supplement?
We always recommend food first! However, if you choose to go the probiotic supplement route, look for the following on a supplement label:
- Recommended Use | For example, “supports digestive and immune health”
- Dosage | The amount you need to consume to receive some benefit
- Strain of Bacteria | For example, Lactobacillus acidophilus MN5
- CFU (Colony Forming Units) | The total number of live cultures in the supplement; avoid products that state the CFU at time of manufacture since this does not take into account the decline of CFU during storage
- Use By Date | How long the supplement will contain live cultures