The saying “You are what you eat” just might be more true than previously thought possible. We’ve been aware of the effect nutrition has on our outward appearance—from obesity to acne—but new science is emerging with evidence on how the state of our gut affects our wellbeing as a whole. Read through these Q&A’s to understand how.
What is gut microbiota?
Formerly known as gut flora, microbiota is the name assigned to population of microbes living within our intestines. In addition to microorganisms such as fungi and parasites, the microbiota is populated with tens of trillions of bacteria between 300-500 clusters of strains. Before getting grossed out, it’s important to know that humans co-evolved as hosts to these bacteria because many of them are actually beneficial to our biology.
How does microbiota influence health?
Good bacteria found within the gastrointestinal (GI) tract help digest food, improve nutritional absorption, fight off microbes, and prevent sicknesses. It’s for these reasons that probiotics for women have become a popular means to increase the number of beneficial bacteria within the gut’s microbiota.
The composition of our microbiota is akin to a fingerprint; each individual has a unique presence of certain strains and species. Moreover, our microbiota is constantly evolving due to age, environment, and most importantly, diet.
Nearly 75 percent of your immune system activity is found in the gut and digestive tract. Your gut flora can affect your metabolism, hormonal levels, mood—even your bone health. If your microbiota is out of whack, you may be forced to begin taking mood-boosting supplements, bone support supplements, dietary supplements and more.
How does diet affect the microbiota?
Diet is one of the primary factors that determines microbiota composition, as evidenced in the significant difference observed between Western and Eastern cultures. The amount, type, and balance of the main dietary macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) have a significant impact on how our intestinal bacteria flourishes—and which species do so. Certain bacterial strains break down specific substances ingested by humans, which produces substrates (chemicals due to a reaction) that provide metabolic signals back to us, their host.
For example, a healthy diet rich in grains, fruits and nuts increases the bacterial strains Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Enterococcus which are beneficial to their hosts and aid in digestion. On the other hand, sudden changes in fat composition can dramatically affect gut flora in a negative way. By increasing the population of Bacteroides species, bile acids are altered, metabolism is disturbed, and carcinogens may possibly be produced.
What’s the link between gut health and stress?
A properly balanced microbiota can reduce GI digestion problems and improve our immune system, but the gut is also linked to our nervous system—plus a number of other related biological functions. It’s so connected, in fact, that sometimes the gut is referred to as the body’s “second brain”. The two organs are in constant communication with each other via the gut-brain axis (GBA), a biochemical signaling which occurs between the GI tract and central nervous system (CNS). If either the GI is impaired or under stress it may be experienced within the CNS (and vice versa) via the GBA.
Can my gut impact my mood?
If you’ve ever heard phrases such as “I have a gut feeling about this,” “gut-wrenching,” or “butterflies in your stomach,” it’s easy to theorize how your gut can play a role on your mood, or how your mood might be felt intestinally. For starters, the microbiome produces neurotransmitters like serotonin which is responsible for feeling “happy” and coping with mental turmoil. Additionally, healthy bacteria in the gut work to lower cortisol, the notorious “stress” hormone. A healthy gut can therefore affect not only digestion and immunity, but also your overall well-being by regulating hormones and supporting mental clarity.
How do I improve my gut health?
It might be time to have your microbiota composition tested and take steps towards restoring its vitality if you experience regular symptoms such as:
- Muscle tension
- Exhaustion or fatigue
- Restlessness or trouble sleeping
- Anxiety and/or depression
- GI discomfort
When your gut is healthy, it contains a balance of about 85% of good bacteria and roughly 15% of harmful strains. Unfortunately, certain aspects of your everyday life—such as highly-processed foods, antibiotics, environmental toxins, hygiene habits, and natural aging—may be depleting your beneficial flora without you even knowing. If you’d like to increase the population of positive bacteria, try:
- Taking pre- and probiotic supplements
- Optimizing your diet
- Becoming more physically active
- Improving your quality of sleep
- Avoiding antibiotics
By understanding the delicate relationship between your gut, brain, and overall wellbeing, you can begin taking steps to control your stress, restore your gut, and improve your general health.