You can't see them, and you probably don't think about them, but the bacteria in your gut have a major impact on your health.
New studies indicate that the thousands of microorganisms that live in your gut – your gut microbiota – may be important to avoiding and treating various medical conditions. Researchers are finding associations with obesity, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and colon cancer.
"The gut biome research is promising and important and could be among the biggest discoveries of the century," said HonorHealth gastroenterologist Siva Talluri, MD. Gut bacteria are normal and essential to health, he noted.
The microbiome is defined as all the genes inside the microbial cells. Everyone has between 10 and 100 trillion microbial cells that live on and in the body.
Your gut biome:
- Encompasses thousands of cells, including viruses, fungi and bacteria
- Is important for breaking down foods to provide nutrition, repairing cells and protecting cells from pathogens
- Should include good bacteria that counter bad bacteria by promoting tissue repair
- Is different than anyone else's gut biome
About 150 to 170 biome species are predominant among the thousands in the human gut. Your age, diet, medications and medical conditions all have an influence on your gut biome.
By analyzing a stool sample, researchers can evaluate the diversity of an individual's gut biome. That evaluation can reveal the types of bacteria in the gut and whether they're associated with certain medical conditions.
How to improve your gut bacteria
Until researchers are able to provide specific answers about how and why gut biome relate to certain medical conditions, Dr. Talluri recommends two ways to improve your gut bacteria:
- Eat a high-fiber diet. That means lots of fruits and vegetables. High-fiber diets already are known to be beneficial to conditions such as diabetes, obesity and colon cancer. In addition to providing nutritional value, they can increase the diversity of your gut bacteria. Eating high-fiber foods can improve the good bacteria in your gut by helping to break down sugars and absorb fatty acids, which your cells need.
- Improve your gut health by eating probiotic foods. Probiotics are live microorganisms found in fermented foods that provide good bacteria. Probiotics have been shown to be useful in gastrointestinal conditions including chronic constipation, infectious diarrhea and some patients with inflammatory bowel disease. Probiotics also can help prevent allergic conditions like eczema.
Probiotic-rich foods include:
- Low-fat yogurt with active cultures
Prebiotics are foods that may promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Prebiotic-rich foods include chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, whole wheat and bran, spinach, almonds, apples and bananas.
Dr. Talluri cautioned that probiotic and prebiotic pills should not be taken by everyone. "The research regarding their usefulness and benefits is preliminary," he said. "Check with your gastroenterologist first."
Other gut-healthy recommendations include:
- Avoiding animal products, especially red meat, fried foods and high-fat dairy products
- Avoiding antibiotics when possible because they can kill both healthy and unhealthy bacteria
- Exercising regularly
- Managing your stress
Meanwhile, as scientists continue to research gut microbiomes to analyze their genetic information and the cause and effect of specific medical conditions, improve your gut health by eating smart.