When you hear the word “bacteria,” what comes to mind? Most people immediately think of germs that cause harmful infections. But did you know that not all bacteria are bad? In fact, your body is more bacteria than it is human — you have 10 times more bacteria than cells!
Approximately 100 trillion bacteria, both good and bad, reside in your intestines and stomach. Collectively, this community is referred to as the microbiome, or less formally, the gut. The bacteria in your gut consist of roughly 1,000 species and 5,000 different strains. Until relatively recently, science underappreciated the role of the gut in overall human health. But research is finally discovering that the gut microbiome could be key in preventing and even treating certain diseases.
Your gut microbiome plays a key part in digestion, but this is only the beginning of what this amazing ecosystem of microbes can do. Researchers have linked the good and bad gut bacteria in your gut to functions that go far beyond digestion and play an important role in your overall health and wellness. Although it isn’t clear yet which specific strains of bacteria are the most important, the microbiome as a whole plays a vital role in:
→ Metabolizing nutrients from medication and food
→ Producing vitamins
→ Acting a protective barrier against intestinal infection
→ Preventing chronic illness
→ Treating diseases
→ Weight management
→ Immune function
→ Emotional health
Scientists have yet to conclude on how exactly gut bacteria are able to perform these functions, but they do agree that a link exists between an unhealthy gut and conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and neurological disorders; including schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression. Harvard University has definitively connected gut bacteria to the prevention of rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, immune disease, and even certain forms of cancer.
Considering the microbiome’s influence over so many aspects of our physical and emotional health, we can now understand how incredibly important it is to be mindful of our gut health.
What Defines a Healthy Microbiome?
It all comes down to the diversity of your gut bacteria. Studies have documented that generally healthy people have a greater diversity of microorganisms than those who aren’t as healthy. But further research is needed to determine whether low bacterial diversity increases the risk of disease, or if a disease decreases bacterial diversity.
Microbial diversity in your microbiome is impacted by a number of factors; age, genes, diet, environment, and medications. Although you can’t control your age or your genes, you can manage external factors like your diet, environment, and medications to avoid gut issues and increase the number of good strains in your system. Additionally, another defining characteristic of a healthy microbiome is balance. Your gut contains bacteria that cause inflammation as well as bacteria that fight inflammation. By balancing these good and bad bacteria at once, your gut can remain happy and healthy.
Research on gut health is still in its infancy, many studies confirm that diet, behavior, and certain environmental factors can help or harm your microbiome.
- Diet: The food you consume directly affects your microbial diversity. If your diet is consistently high in sugar and processed foods, you are reducing the number of good bacteria in your microbiome and allowing harmful bacteria to take over.
- Birth and breastfeeding: The bacterial exposure people experience before age three can determine lifelong health. That’s why those who were born vaginally and breastfed as infants have higher bacterial diversity. They had more exposure to good bacteria in the birth canal and in breastmilk.
- Your Environment: If you grew up in an environment where you were regularly exposed to bacteria, you’re likely to have a more diverse microbiome.
- Stress: Recent evidence suggests that the microbiome and the brain influence each other; the gut emits signals that affect neurotransmitters, which makes mental and emotional stress harmful to your gut.
How do I know if my gut is healthy?
Start with a gut health test. Kean Gut+ is an at-home gut test that gives you an in-depth look at your current gut health status, along with personalized recommendations and actionable takeaways for you to be proactive in your gut health journey.