The importance of maintaining a healthy gut has gained significant attention, but what exactly is the gut microbiome and why does it matter?
Understanding the gut microbiome
Within your intestines resides a complex community of microorganisms known as the gut microbiota. This collection of trillions of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, carries out numerous vital functions in your body . Increasing evidence suggests that regardless of your health objectives—whether it's weight loss, enhanced fitness, healthier skin, improved immunity, or even mood enhancement—nurturing your gut microbiome is essential . Unlike our genetic makeup, we possess the ability to influence our gut microbiome simply through our lifestyle choices and how we care for it .
These microbes collectively weigh around 1-2kg and effectively operate as an additional organ within our bodies. The human gut microbiome can consist of up to 1,000 species of bacteria, each playing a distinct role. Many of these bacteria are crucial for maintaining good health, while others may contribute to disease .
The impact of the gut microbiome
From the moment of your birth, the gut microbiome begins to exert its influence on your body. Just as no two fingerprints are identical, each person possesses a unique gut microbiome composition . Several factors shape the type of gut bacteria that reside and flourish within your gut, including the health of your parents, the mode of your birth (C-section or natural), and whether you were breastfed or bottle-fed. As you grow, numerous factors continue to mold the bacterial population in your gut . While some factors like genetics are difficult to alter, others such as diet are within our control.
Functions of the gut microbiome
The gut microbiome serves several essential functions that impact overall health:
- Trains and supports our immune system.
- Communicates with vital organs.
- Prevents invasion from harmful microbes.
- Produces vitamins, amino acids, hormones, and chemical messengers.
- Influences gut movement and function.
- Facilitates food digestion and nutrient absorption.
Remarkably, the gut microbiota can even influence our brain and subsequently affect our moods.
Promoting a healthy gut
Various factors, including dietary choices, can significantly influence the health of your gut and the diversity of microbes it harbors. A diverse array of "good" microbes is crucial not only for gut health but for overall well-being. Consequently, it is recommended to consume at least 30 different plant-based foods per week, regardless of whether you follow a vegetarian, vegan, or omnivorous diet . An excellent starting point is to increase your daily intake of fruits and vegetables, aiming for a variety of colors. These plant-based foods are rich in fiber and polyphenols, which are particularly favored by beneficial gut microbes .
Additionally, incorporating prebiotics into your diet can nourish the "good" bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics, a type of fiber, pass through the digestive system without being broken down, providing sustenance to the gut microbiome. Foods such as watermelons, blueberries, cashews, pistachios, onions, garlic, and leeks are excellent sources of prebiotics .
Probiotics, on the other hand, are live bacteria that can enhance the diversity of your gut microbes. Consuming probiotic-rich foods like natural yogurt, kefir, kimchi, tempeh, sauerkraut, and pickles has been shown to promote the growth of beneficial microbes and offer overall health benefits .
Additional measures for gut health
In addition to dietary adjustments, several other lifestyle choices can support a healthy gut microbiome:
- Reducing your consumption of sugar and artificial sweeteners
- Reducing your consumption of ultra-processed foods
- Improving your sleep
- Regular exercise
- Reducing stress
Take home message
Your gut microbiome is extremely important in many aspects of health. For a happier and healthier gut try to eat a diverse range of plant-based foods as this supports a diverse microbiome and changing your diet isn’t the only way to improve your gut health.