Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Saccharomyces. They sound like characters straight out of science fiction. But they’re actually the microscopic critters that live in our bodies.
Creepy? Not at all.
Living in your gastrointestinal tract and mine are millions of microbes representing as many as 500 species of bacteria. In fact, this colony of microrganisms — called the gastrointestinal microbiota — numbers 10 times more than all the cells in the human body. We’re more microbe than we are anything else. Most of these good bacteria live in the colon, farther along in the digestive system where they’re relatively shielded from gastric acid and bile, which are not friendly to bacteria.
What’s more, our microbiomes are as unique to us as fingerprints, each one influenced by age, ethnicity, geography and, most important, diet.
The Gut Microbiome and Mental & Physical Wellbeing
These microbes, as it turns out, are essential to our physical and mental health. Medical researchers and healthcare providers are just beginning to crack this complex code, but a growing body of evidence links diet, microbiota and our state of health or disease.
When our microbiotas are robust with good bacteria, it’s not just our digestive systems that work better, but practically every system in our bodies. According to Kate Ferry, registered dietician and diabetes educator with The Christ Hospital, “research is promising and indicates that good gut microbiome helps with a variety of conditions, from the common cold to inflammatory bowel disease.”
Research has suggested that an unhealthy microbiome leads to obesity, as those good bacteria help our bodies process, distribute and use carbohydrates, fats and nutrients effectively. A poor microbiome has been linked to diseases including diabetes, irritable bowel disease, inflammation, allergies, liver disease and skin conditions like eczema.
What’s more, researchers have established what’s called the “gut-brain axis,” a two-way communication highway that not only enables the brain to regulate our gut functions, but connects our guts with emotional and cognitive centers in the brain. Through our endocrine and metabolic systems, those gut microbiobes interact with our central nervous system. In other words, those bacteria can affect how we think and how we feel emotionally.
What Derails our Gut Microbiome?
As you might expect antibiotics, which are designed to kill bacteria, can affect the microbiome because they can disrupt the good bacteria along with the bad ones that cause infection and illness. Whether we get antibiotics through prescription medication or through eating meat from animals treated with antibiotics, they can derail an otherwise healthy gut microbiome.
Diet and a Healthy Microbiome
You’ve heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” That’s certainly true of the gut microbiome. In fact, it’s also true that “You feel and you think what you eat.”
Whatever we eat affects this ecosystem of bacteria for both good and bad. Scientists are just beginning to understand the specific effects of certain foods and nutrients, like carbs and fats, on the microbiome. But it’s recognized that if you feed the microbiome sugary, fatty foods, the bad bacteria will thrive, overtaking the good guys. Feed it fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other plant-based foods, and the good bacteria win.
In addition to high-fiber, plant-based foods, Ferry advises adding “probiotic” foods — those that contain good bacteria — to your plate. Look for foods that are cultured or fermented, which naturally contain many of those Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Saccharomyces organisms. “These include dairy products like low-sugar yogurt, Greek in particular, cottage cheese and kefir,” Ferry says. She also advises fermented products like kombucha, kimchi and high quality sauerkraut. (Kombucha is a tea-based beverage fermented with bacteria and yeast; kimchi is a Korean dish of fermented vegetables, kind of a spicy version of sauerkraut.)
In addition, Ferry recommends “prebiotic” foods — those that feed the bacteria currently living in your gut. These include flax and chia seeds, berries, dark leafy greens, asparagus, honey, bananas, onions and garlic, and legumes.
The good news is that you can make a huge improvement in your gut health by making a meaningful change in your diet. Keep Lactobacillus
and its friends happy, and your body and mind will be happy, too. From your gut health and beyond, if you're looking for a primary care physician to help get your health on track, click to schedule an appointment online with one at a location near you!