A healthy gut is vital for more than digestion - it plays a role in immunity too. At a time when maintaining a strong immune system is at the forefront of our minds, here are our top tips on how to keep your microbiome healthy.
Your microbiome, explained
You have ten trillion cells and approximately 20,000 genes that make you, you. But did you know that you have even more bacterial cells living on and inside you that code for more than 45 million bacterial genes?1 More bacteria than cells that make us, us!
The microorganisms living both in and on the body are collectively known as microbiota, and their genetic material, the microbiome. This is mostly bacteria, but also includes viruses, fungi, and protozoa, which live on the skin, oropharynx, airways, genitals, urinary tract, and our gut.
The microbiome has become quite a hot area of study in the last decade, driven by advances in technology that help us understand it faster and in great detail. We now know there are roughly 1000 species (and even more subspecies) of bacteria living with us, and that most of these exist in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or gut. The GI tract includes everything from the mouth down to the stomach, small intestine, colon and rectum, with an increase in bacteria the further down the gut you go.
The microbiome’s role in health
These bacteria don't just sit there, they do beneficial things for us like helping break down our food to provide us with essential vitamins and nutrients, and working with our own immune system to protect us against harmful invasion of other microorganisms. The constant cross-talk these bacteria are in with our immune system helps maintain the delicate balance between a pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory state- that is, immune system vigilance and immune system tolerance.
When the types of bacteria in the gut get off balance, we call this state dysbiosis. That means you might have fewer of the “good” bacteria, more of the “bad” bacteria, or even just a lack of bacterial diversity overall. Dysbiosis has been associated with many health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune and inflammatory disease, allergy, asthma, obesity, metabolic syndrome, cancer, mental health disorders, and infections2-5 and that's probably just the tip of the iceberg.
The microbiome and COVID-19
There is also emerging evidence considering the link between gut microbiota and Covid-19, noting that a healthy gut microbiome could be pivotal in a balanced immune response where both an over reactive or under reactive immune system can worsen clinical complications such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome6.
What can harm or help your microbiome
Not only can dysbiosis contribute to disease, but disease can also worsen dysbiosis. Genetics, diet, and environmental factors also play a role in keeping your gut happy, starting at childbirth, and continuing through old age. Some factors known to influence the microbiome are diet, drugs such as antibiotics, laxatives, and proton pump inhibitors, and lifestyle choices which include exercise and sleep patterns, occupation, and whether or not you live with pets7,8.
Caring for your microbiome
So what can you do to ensure a healthy balance of bugs in your gut ? Here’s what we know and a few things we recommend:
- Probiotic food (such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, aged cheese, sauerkraut, miso and sourdough bread) and probiotic supplementation have positive effects on human gut health8. Try to incorporate more of these into your diet, and avoid yogurts with added sugar and flavourings.
- Dietary fibre (such as fruits and veg, whole grains, nuts and seeds) is related to better gut health and the opposite is true for a low fibre diet8. Try to vary the types of fruits and veg you eat as much as possible.
- High sugar diets, artificial sweeteners, and processed foods are bad for gut health8.
- Regular exercise positively affects the gut flora in many ways including increasing the overall diversity of gut bacteria, thus offering a degree of protection against many diseases9. So get moving!
- Avoid taking antibiotics unnecessarily. Discuss antibiotics and alternative options with your doctor if possible.
Go with your gut, because your poo can really do a lot for you, and you can do a lot for your poo.
- Tierney BT, Yang Z, Luber JM, et al. The Landscape of Genetic Content in the Gut and Oral Human Microbiome. Cell Host Microbe. 2019;26(2):283-295.e8. doi:10.1016/j.chom.2019.07.008
- Carding S, Verbeke K, Vipond DT, Corfe BM, Owen LJ. Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota in disease. Microb Ecol Health Dis. 2015;26:26191. Published 2015 Feb 2. doi:10.3402/mehd.v26.26191
- Kostic AD, Chun E, Robertson L, et al. Fusobacterium nucleatum potentiates intestinal tumorigenesis and modulates the tumor-immune microenvironment. Cell Host Microbe. 2013;14(2):207-215. doi:10.1016/j.chom.2013.07.007
- Zheng P, Zeng B, Zhou C, et al. Gut microbiome remodeling induces depressive-like behaviors through a pathway mediated by the host's metabolism. Mol Psychiatry. 2016;21(6):786-796. doi:10.1038/mp.2016.44
- Mancini N, Greco R, Pasciuta R, et al. Enteric Microbiome Markers as Early Predictors of Clinical Outcome in Allogeneic Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant: Results of a Prospective Study in Adult Patients. Open Forum Infect Dis. 2017;4(4):ofx215. Published 2017 Oct 6. doi:10.1093/ofid/ofx215
- Dhar D, Mohanty A. Gut microbiota and Covid-19- possible link and implications. Virus Res. 2020;285:198018. doi:10.1016/j.virusres.2020.198018
- Gilbert JA, Blaser MJ, Caporaso JG, Jansson JK, Lynch SV, Knight R. Current understanding of the human microbiome. Nat Med. 2018;24(4):392-400. doi:10.1038/nm.4517
- Valdes, A. M., Walter, J., Segal, E., & Spector, T. D. (2018). Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 361, k2179. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2179
- Monda, V., Villano, I., Messina, A., Valenzano, A., Esposito, T., Moscatelli, F., Viggiano, A., Cibelli, G., Chieffi, S., Monda, M., & Messina, G. (2017). Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2017, 3831972. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/3831972
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.