Just a decade or a bit longer, although researchers were onto it, the bacteria that live in your body were hardly spoken about in health terms.
Now however, we know that bacteria and other microorganisms have a name and they are vital to your health as they are unique to you. They are commonly known as your microbiome. The bugs of your microbiome number in the trillions. Collectively they weigh between 1-2 kilogram in any given person, and a lot of them live in your gut.
Bacteria in the gut microbiome produce a wide range of neurotransmitters that our brain uses to regulate memory, learning and mood. Some studies say that gut bacteria produce 95% of our body’s serotonin, a calming and antidepressant neurotransmitter.
On top of this, the brain is connected to the gut through millions of nerves and so it’s likely that the gut microbiome influences brain function by sending messages through these nerves. It is no wonder that people with psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression have been found to have different species of bacteria in the microbiome compared to healthy people. However there are also studies that show that an unbalanced microbiome is the cause rather than the effect.
The link between your microbiome and heart health has become very clear when you look at the good and bad bacteria that can live in your gut. Good bacteria especially lactobacilli can help reduce overall cholesterol and triglyceride levels. By contrast, unhealthy bacterial species in the microbiome can produce a substance known as Trimethylamine-N-Oxide (TMAO) when they break down red meat and other animal based foods. TMAO contributes to blocked arteries and has been to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The basic task of your immune system is to decide to what to react to and what not to react to. The balance of the bacteria in the microbiome determines the balanced response of the immune system. An unbalanced microbiome can shift the immune system to an inflamed state and has been linked to a variety of condition such as ‘leaky gut’, asthma and allergy.
Increasingly, research is showing that there is a link between our microbiome and weight gain, one research study has found that a certain strain of bacteria (Christensenella minuta) is more common in the microbiome of people with a low body weight. In general imbalance of the microbiome is believed to play a role in weight gain.
Since your intestinal tract is where your microbiome lives, it makes sense that the function of your digestive tract can be impaired when your microbiome is out of balance. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and gastritis are all suspected to be associated with microbiome imbalance.
Food and Microbiome
As always, a healthy diet is important in the maintenance of a healthy body and that is no exception when considering your microbiome.
Excessive consumption of refined sugars, fatty foods and alcohol will promote excessive spread of bad bugs within your microbiome. Probiotics are live bacteria that contribute to a healthy microbiome. Probiotic foods, such as fermented foods provide good microorganisms for your microbiome.
There are also many probiotic supplements available. Supplements are generally recommended for people who have a poor diet or are taking certain medications. Prebiotics meanwhile are the compounds in food that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms that feed the good bugs allowing them to thrive. Prebiotics occur in significant amounts in artichokes, onions, leeks, apples (with the skin on), spinach, asparagus, bananas, seaweed, wheat and non-processed honey.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet features eating primarily plant based foods such as fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and nuts, olive oil and using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavour foods.
Other features of the Mediterranean diet include liming red meat to once a week, eat fish and poultry at least twice a week and drinking red wine in moderation. Eating in this manner has many benefits but the relevant one here is that it benefits your microbiome.
The more we study the microbiome, the more we are realising that its composition goes a long way to determining our health and wellbeing.
Eat well and exercise and you will be taking care of your microbiome which in turn will take care of you.