You may not realize it, but inside your belly lives an entire ecosystem that influences everything from your mood to your metabolism. It has taken researchers decades to uncover the existence of a thriving gut microbiome— the name for this community of bacteria— fighting for survival in the harsh trenches of your gut.
This discovery is just one small step toward fully understanding the human body. For all that scientists, doctors, and other experts understand, there is so much that remains unknown. However, scientists have learned in recent years that the gut microbiome plays a strong role in your overall health and body function. The number and types of bacteria that effectively flourish in your gut— a feat that is highly influenced by your diet and other lifestyle choices— is thought to be a key determinant of disease risk and weight loss success.
The plight of your gut bacteria
The microbiome of the gut began to garner attention when experts watched the incidence of autoimmune diseases soar across recent decades, particularly those conditions related to the gut, such as celiac disease.
While trying to understand these diseases and the sudden spike in cases, researchers uncovered an entire world living in the guts of humans— trillions of microbes foraging for survival. In a perfect world, these microbes work in harmony with the human body by breaking down nutrients to supply chemicals that nourish your cells and ward off inflammation. However, the survival of each microbe may hinge on one imperative nutrient missing from many American diets: fiber.
In groundbreaking research out of Stanford University, microbiologist Justin Sonnenberg and his team found that the various species of bacteria in the gut depend on a variety of fiber for food. Without a sufficient variety of fiber, certain species of bacteria may be forced to search for food inside your gut. Your gut bacteria are not seeking a burger with fries or a chocolate shake. No, without fiber these bacteria begin to gnaw through the mucosal lining of the wall of your intestines, which along with other factors, can cause intestinal permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut syndrome has been linked to multiple symptoms of bodily distress, including diarrhea, nausea, brain fog, mood swings, and weight gain— along with raising inflammation and ultimately your risk of disease.
Leaky gut may signal only the beginning of the end. Without the proper food sources, bacteria cannot survive and ultimately certain species dies off. While this may seem like a good thing considering these tiny creatures were chewing through your intestines, these losses can impact your metabolism. Every species has a function, helping you break down nutrients into usable forms of energy and facilitating the shuttle of these nutrients to where they are needed throughout the body. If those bacteria are no longer there to do their specific jobs, inflammation can spread and cellular function may diminish. To make bad news worse, Sonnenberg and his team speculate that the death of even a single species of bacteria means its absence will be passed to your offspring and perhaps their offspring as well. Their team’s theory may explain why autoimmune diseases and food sensitivities have risen exponentially over the last 30 years, as the major staples in the human diet have evolved to include an abundance of processed foods that are low in crucial nutrients like fiber.
While Sonnenberg and his team are striving to understand just how to nurture the delicate balance of the gut microbiome, another group of experts has stumbled upon another key function— weight management.
A healthy profile of gut bacteria—an optimal balance of good and bad bacteria— is only one element of this quandary. The latest research, published in the November 2015 issue of the journal Cell, suggests gut bacteria is almost as unique as your fingerprint. Each individual houses a distinct combination of bacteria that determines how his or her body reacts to certain foods.
This study began as an experiment to see how specific biomarkers, like blood sugar levels, are influenced in different people eating the same foods of the same quantity. Researchers were astonished to discover that for some people, a typically innocuous food like a sweet potato caused higher spikes in blood sugar levels than in others. These same differences were observed over and over again with a number of foods. This evidence led researchers to hypothesize that the varied reactions of each subject to the same foods was somehow related to their gut bacteria.
Lead researcher Jennifer Kluk, professor of kinesiology and health sciences at York University, told reporters, “This [new study] is another that shows promising evidence that the microbiome may play an important role in how we regulate body weight and could be a novel target for future weight loss interventions.”
Someday, finding the perfect diet to manage a healthy weight may be as simple as assessing the profile of your gut bacteria.
Managing a healthy gut microbiome
Managing a healthy gut is not as complex as sounds, but it requires dedication and a little patience.
Try making these six simple changes to your daily lifestyle to boost and maintain a healthy gut:
1. Drink plenty of water
2. Supplement a quality probiotic after getting clearance from your doctor
3. Add a variety of fiber-rich foods to your diet
4. Eat a well-rounded diet consisting of fresh, whole foods
5. Eliminate processed foods, sugar, and artificial ingredients as much as possible
6. Increase intake of fermented foods, such as kim chi and sauerkraut, which promote healthy gut bacteria
Research suggests a healthy gut microbiome is vital to a long, healthy, high quality of life, and possibly future generations of your family, so treat it with care.