There's a lot of talk these days about the gut microbiome. But what exactly is a microbiome, and how does it work to keep our bodies functioning like they should?
Read on for some microbiome basics.
What is the gut microbiome?
The microbiome as a whole is the bacteria that live in our bodies. We cannot survive without them. They're crucial for digestion, detoxification, hormone balance, and brain and lung function.
While the microbiome encompasses the bacteria that live throughout our bodies—including our skin and sinus passages—here we hone in on the gut microbiome and its role in keeping us healthy.
So what does a healthy gut microbiome look like? For starters, it's composed of not only bacteria, but a diversity of bacteria that all play different roles. When there's not enough variety, when too much bad bacteria exists, or when the gut bacteria isn't fed properly, dysbiosis can occur. This can lead to intestinal permeability and a host of other health issues, from irritable bowel syndrome and colitis to eczema, liver disease, and dementia.
There's testing available to determine bacteria levels—good and bad—as well as to test the gut's hardiness (for instance, how resistant would it be to, say, drinking water from a river?).
While it lives in the gut, this microbiome is connected to the entire body. This is especially true of the brain and lungs.
Understanding the gut-brain axis
The gut-brain axis is the biochemical signaling that takes place between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It's a complex network that links intestinal function to the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain. It influences many realms of health, especially digestion.
While many believe that digestion begins with saliva, it actually starts in our brains and thoughts. The more activation signals that are sent from our brains to our gut, the better food breakdown we have. If we're experiencing distress or discomfort, our moods can be negatively impacted. Many who struggle with mental health issues, for example, also tend to be more likely to experience digestive disorders.
Similarly, there's a close relationship between the gut and lungs. And research is showing that treating the gut leads to more positive results than treating the lungs directly by getting to the root of the problem. By treating dysbiosis, we can better manage intestinal inflammation and improve immunity.
Keeping a healthy gut microbiome
Keeping gut bacteria balanced means feeding it properly. This means getting enough essential nutrients like calcium, magnesium, beta carotene, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B12. It also means eating dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale, fish like salmon and mackerel, and unprocessed meats. And of course, it means avoiding foods like processed meats, dairy, high-sugar foods, and carbohydrates from corn, oats, and bread.
If the gut microbiome is off, everything is off. The best plan of attack, then, is to treat the whole body. Stick to a healthy diet as much as possible, exercise regularly, address inflammation, and get the gut microbiome in order to protect every system in the body. Naturally!