Unless they are experiencing heartburn or indigestion, most people rarely think about their gut, and few believe that it plays an important role in their overall health. But it does. It plays a critical role in the digestion of your food, it protects you from illness, and it is even important in relation to your mental health.
What is surprising is that your gut consists mainly of bacteria, and everyone knows that bacteria are bad for you. Several serious diseases, in fact, are caused by it. But all bacteria are not bad. There is both bad and good bacteria, and most of the bacteria in your gut is good.
The bacteria in your body are known by several names such as microflora, microbiota, and microbiome, and although some of it resides in your respiratory and urinary systems, most (by far) resides in your gastrointestinal tract, or gut. There are, in fact, over 500 varieties in your body, and they number about 100 trillion. Indeed, they actually outnumber the number of cells in your body by at least ten to one.
Besides keeping your bad bacteria in check, and assisting in the digestion of your food, they also produce several B vitamins, vitamin K, and folate. In addition, they help stabilize your metabolism, play a critical role in the health of our colon, and they even supply about ten percent of your energy.
Furthermore, they play an important role in relation to your nervous system. And 80- percent of your immune system resides in your gut. So, all in all it’s obviously an important system, and it is therefore important to keep it healthy.
Obesity and Food Allergies
Everyone has a slightly different makeup of bacteria in their gut. Your microbiome is, in fact, characteristic to you in the same way your fingerprints are. This doesn’t mean that it is unchangeable. It can, in fact, be changed relatively easy, and in some cases quite rapidly. As we will see, diet and several other factors have a large impact on it.
Several studies have also shown that obese people have a different array of bacteria in their microbiome as compared to lean people. These studies have shown that even a slight shift in your bacterial balance can have an effect on your weight. So this is another reason to keep your gut healthy.
It is also now known that changes in your gut bacteria have an effect on the development of food allergies, particularly in young people. Studies have shown that food allergies in children increased by fifty percent between the years 1997 and 2011, and many researchers believe that it is because their microbiome were disturbed and changed when they were young.
Feeding Your Microbiome
It might seem strange, but the bacteria of your microbiome have to be fed if they are to remain healthy, in the same way the cells of your body have to be fed. In other words, if you want to keep them in proper balance you have to feed them properly. Two of the most important things in relation to this are probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are foods that contain active cultures of good bacteria. Prebiotics are substances that act as food for probiotics.
Fermented dairy products such as yogurt and kefir contain probiotics. Probiotic products are widely marketed. Most yogurt contain two live cultures, and kefir can contain as many as twelve. Fermented vegetables are also helpful.
Prebiotics are fiber or fiber-like materials that have no nutritional value for humans. Nevertheless, they are important in everyone’s diet, and are particularly helpful in maintaining a healthy gut.
Gut Bacteria Under Attack
Your good gut bacteria is under continual attack, not only from bad bacteria but also other things such as:
A poor diet
Your diet has a major effect on the health of your gut. One of the things that is particularly harmful to it is sugar. High fructose corn syrup, which is used extensively in processed food, is particularly bad. Sugar promotes the growth of pathogenic yeast and other fungi, and it nourishes pathogenic bacteria.
In relation to medicines, the major problem is overuse of antibiotics. There’s no doubt that we need antibiotics, and can’t do without them; indeed, over the past few decades they have played a significant role in keeping people healthy. Unfortunately, they have also been used extensively in cases where they are not particularly effective, and this has allowed them to develop strains that are not controlled by our immune system – strains that are now referred to as “super bugs.”
In addition, antibiotics kill good bacteria in the same way they kill bad bacteria, so the health of your gut suffers when you use them. And it usually takes several weeks or more for it to recover after their use.
One of the major problems with antibiotics started after it was discovered that not only do they kill bacteria, but they also add weight to animals when they are administered. So they are now used routinely by the agricultural community to “fatten up” their animals before slaughter.
Another medicine that is hard on gut flora is NSAIDs. They are anti-inflammatory drugs that are used mainly against arthritis. Your gut bacteria are affected by them and you should be careful of overuse of them because of this.
Stress also has a serious effect, as you likely know from experience. You frequently get heartburn or other gastrointestinal maladies when you are unset, and this can affect your microbial balance. Finally, pollution also affects it, particularly industrial pollution that frequently affects the air in cities.
Summary of What You should do to Optimize Your Gut Health
It’s obvious that a healthy gut should be a serious objective for everyone, and for this you should:
Maintain a healthy diet. In particular, avoid processed foods and simple carbohydrates as much as possible.
Eat probiotics – particularly yogurt and kefir.
Prebiotics are also important – eat sufficient fiber.
Avoid excess sugar.
Don’t overuse antibiotics and NSAIDs.
Don’t overuse antibiotic soap.
Barry Parker is a professor emeritus (physics) at Idaho State University who now spends most of his time writing. He is the author of 26 books on science, health writing, and music, and he has written for the Smithsonian, Encyclopedia Britannica, Time-Life Books, the Washington Post, and numerous magazines such as Flyfisherman, Astronomy Magazine, and Sky and Telescope. One of his books is “You Should Write a Book: Writing it With Style and Clarity, Publishing Beautiful Pages, Selling Thousands of Copies,” It is based on a course he taught at ISU for several years, and is available through his website [http://www.BarryParkerbooks.com]. He is also the author of “Feel Great Feel Alive” which is on health, fitness and self-improvement, and he is CEO of Stardust Press. While