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Gut Microbiota: What is It and Why is It Important

November 29, 2016 by Dean Simmons, Registered Dietitian

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Gut Microbiota: What is it and why is it important

WARNING: If you have antimicrobial hand soap in your bathroom, the contents of this blog post might be unsettling.

There is a hidden world on you and within you. A world made up of trillions of microscopic organisms. Bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa are all quietly living with you. This knowledge might be troubling, especially if you tend to think of microbes as harmful. But, there’s nothing to be alarmed about… the harmful microbes [the one that can cause disease], called pathogens are only a small part of a much larger cast of microbial characters, most of which are either neutral or helpful.

Most of your microbes live in your large intestine (colon). This vast and diverse community of microbes is called your gut microbiota (also called the gut flora). In recent years there has been a lot of research into the relationship between your gut microbiota on your health. You may even be noticing more supplements and food products becoming available that claim to “contribute to a healthy gut flora”. Here’s what science is saying about this promising topic.

The makeup of your gut microbiota may play a role in a number of conditions, including:

  • Intestinal conditions like, gastritis, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and colitis, and even colorectal cancer
  • Immune system conditions like, food allergies, asthma and eczema
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Mental health and neurological conditions like anxiety, depressive conditions and autism

While the research has opened up an entirely new way of understanding our health, there are many aspects of the gut microbiota that are still not well understood. Here are the basics on the gut microbiota and your health. For more information, check out the links in the resources section below.

Your gut microbiota helps…

  • Digest fiber and produce nutrients like short chain fatty acids that are a source of energy for intestinal cells
  • Make vitamins like, vitamin B12, folate and vitamin K
  • Your immune system function well
  • Protect you from pathogens (those microbes that cause illness)
  • Maintain the gut barrier, which prevents harmful microbes and substances from entering your blood system
  • Ensure proper digestive functioning

What may affect your gut microbiota?

  • How you were born (vaginal vs. caesarean birth)
  • How you were fed as an infant (breast vs. formula fed)
  • Your exposure to antibiotics (antibiotics diminish the diversity of your gut microbiota)
  • Your diet (what you eat affects how well you feed your microbes)
  • Your age (the gut microbiota changes over time)
  • Your activity levels (physical activity appears to be linked to a more diverse gut microbiota)
  • Stress and illness (reduce the diversity of your gut microbiota)
  • Your environmental exposure to microbes (for example, city living vs. farm living)

What can you do to promote a healthy gut microbiota?

There are some things that you can control, and others (like how you were born or fed as a child) that you can’t. Here are some things you can do to improve your gut microbiota.

  1. Feed your gut microbiota – What you eat and drink can impact your gut microbiota within days. Your microbes love to eat fibre (especially fermentable fibres called prebiotics), so aim to eat a variety of plant-based foods throughout the day. Consider this: if you’re not eating enough high-fibre foods, your gut microbiota may not be getting the fuel they need to help keep you healthy.
  2. Eat and drink some fermented foods – fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and unpasteurized kombucha, miso, kimchi and sauerkraut contain live beneficial bacteria that can help support a healthy gut microbiota. While fermented foods may not qualify as probiotics, they do provide nutritional value while contributing to your gut microbiota. Note that flavoured yogurt and kefir can be high in sugar, and fermented vegetables are often high in sodium. It’s best for your overall health to read the food labels and choose options with lower amounts of sodium and sugar.
  3. Consider probiotics - There is clinical evidence showing that specific types and doses of probiotic supplements may help with specific health conditions. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist, or refer to this Clinical Guide to Probiotic Supplements to find out which supplements are thought to have benefit. Also note that probiotics have a short influence on the gut microbiota and need to be taken regularly to be effective.
  4. Don’t overuse antibiotics – Use only when medically required.
  5. Get outside – Expose yourself to a greater diversity of microbes with outdoor time. Breathe some fresh air and get your hands dirty in the garden.
  6. Get active – Physical activity has numerous well known health benefits, in addition it may improve the diversity of your gut microbiota.
  7. Manage your stress levels – Stress can lead to changes in your gut microbiota, decreasing the diversity of microbes in increasing the number of potentially harmful organisms. Find out what you can do to manage your stress here and check out the Five Ways to Well-being.

Bottom Line:

The gut microbiota acts almost like an extra organ in your body, one that may have far reaching effects on your health. Research into this area is rapidly developing, but is still in its infancy. While the details may still be fuzzy, microbial diversity is one of the markers of a healthy gut microbiota. It may be no coincidence, but many well-known healthy lifestyle habits also seem to benefit your gut microbiota. What’s good for your gut microbes can also be good for you (and vice versa!).


Related blogs

More than a Fermented Food Fad
What is Kombucha Tea and is It Good for You?

Recommended resources

EatRight Ontario: Prebiotics and The Pros of Probiotics
Clinical Guide to Probiotic Supplements Available in Canada (2016)
Labdoor: Probiotic Rankings
Michael Pollan: Some of my Best Friends Are Germs
Johns Hopkins Health Review: The Garden in Your Gut

Organizations

Canadian Digestive Health Foundation: Fibre Fusion
Gut Microbiota For Health: Gut Microbiota Info

Videos

TED: How Our Microbes Make Us who We Are
TED: Meet Your Microbes
TED: Are We Filtering The Wrong Microbes?

Research Articles

Role of the Normal Gut Microbiota
The gut microbiota and host health: a new clinical frontier
Gut Microbiota Modification: Another Piece in the Puzzle of the Benefits of Physical Exercise in Health?
Nature Reviews: The Gut Microbiota
Nature: Microbiome Research, News and Commentary

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