The Gut Microbiome – Essential to Health
Prepared by: Rejan Magee, R.H.N.| wholeharmony.ca
The gut microbiome is a fascinating place, and it grows progressively more interesting as we delve deeper into the research on its connections to everything. This is especially true now as we’re seeing an increasing rise in problems associated with digestive health and other areas of health we wouldn’t necessarily connect with the gut.
We grow up understanding that our stomachs and digestive tracts help us digest food and absorb nutrients. However, what has been underestimated is the collection of bacteria residing in our guts. Not only do they play essential roles in digesting and assimilating nutrients from food, but we now recognize that they regulate many other functions in our bodies as well. Typically, when we see imbalance in the body, the first place we should explore for answers is the gut.
What Is a Microbiome?
A microbiome is the collection of microorganisms in a particular environment in the body. For instance, we have a skin microbiome, an oral microbiome, and we also have a gut microbiome. It’s composed of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, as well as all of their genetic materials. The gut microbiome includes all of the trillions of bacteria residing in the gastrointestinal tract. It’s only in the last few years that the gut has been explored and studied for potential connections between immune function, metabolism, hormone regulation, and even neurological health.
One example is how the gut microbiome and the brain communicate through what is known as the microbiota-gut-brain axis. This is done through the vagus nerve, which is a crucial nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system. This communication works both ways – wherein the gut microbiome can affect the brain and the brain can affect the gut microbiome. The vagus nerve has an anti-inflammatory pathway which is able to decrease inflammation, even that affecting intestinal permeability – or leaky gut syndrome. We see stress as being a huge culprit behind the suppression of vagus nerve function, which can result in damage to the GI tract and microbiome. This is often observed in cases of depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders.
Our gut microbiome is also tightly tied to our skin microbiome. Specific bacteria in our guts produce cells that promote anti-inflammatory responses in the skin. If the gut lining is compromised (as in leaky gut syndrome), microbiome metabolites may be able to get into the bloodstream and accumulate in the skin, causing skin issues. When dietary fibres are fermented by our gut bugs, short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are produced and offer protection against inflammation in the body. This inflammation would otherwise trigger things like allergies, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or skin issues. Certain intestinal bacteria can actually help prevent acne by way of producing SCFAs that are particularly antimicrobial. And because bacteria in our gut microbiome can also influence hormone production and regulation, we can often attribute hormonal acne to underlying gut imbalances.
How to Help Your Gut Microbiome Thrive
A diet varied in whole foods and rich in fibre helps to increase diversity and population of the microbiota and thus help to stave off disease. Furthermore, it’s important to minimize other factors that can harm the gut microbiome – such as stress, chemicals, medications, and over-sanitization.
Even if you have done years of damage to your gut microbiome, you can start to build it up again by feeding your gut bugs with probiotics and prebiotics, and avoiding pro-inflammatory foods. Research shows that variety in fibre-rich plant foods supports a robust intestinal flora. You can also add to the diet fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, yoghurt, kombucha, and natto to help rebuild a healthy gut microbiome. Of course, you could try a probiotic supplement, too, for further support. Additionally, making sure to provide your beneficial bacteria with prebiotics, as found in things like onion, garlic, leeks, sunchokes, and chicory root, is of utmost importance as well. Then, avoiding refined vegetable oils and refined sugars and carbohydrates that cause inflammation and feed unwanted microbes is recommended.
Chemicals from pesticides and herbicides found in conventionally grown foods and GMO’s can negatively affect the gut microbiome, and so organic foods are suggested. In addition, it’s important to know that certain drugs like NSAIDs (ibuprofen, Advil), birth control pills, and especially antibiotics can wreak havoc on your digestive tract and flora.
Toning The Vagus Nerve
Studies show that stimulating the vagus nerve can vastly improve digestive disorders like colitis and Crohn’s disease, and be beneficial for other minor intestinal imbalances.
There are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, including gargling water, deep belly breathing exercises, chanting exercises, or specific medical interventions. These can help to decrease inflammation and support digestion, as well as have a positive effect on mood.
As soon as we exit the birth canal, we are building our gut microbiome, and environmental factors continue to shape it as we grow. We can support the growth of healthy bacteria from infancy through childhood by exposing ourselves to a variety of microbes in our vicinity. Playing in the dirt, eating vegetables out of the garden, playing with pets, and other parts of being a kid all help us develop a thriving intestinal flora. If we can avoid antibiotics at an early age, breastfeed for as long as possible, and introduce a variety of whole, organic foods into the diet – we’re off to a strong start and it is much easier to support microbiome health if we continue on that path.
It’s important to remember that we are more bacteria cells than we are human cells. We rely on the symbiotic relationship we have with these bacteria to help regulate homeostasis in the body every single day. If we don’t support our gut microbiome, it cannot support us.
– Posted May 2020 –
Bonaz, B., Bazin, T., & Pellissier, S. (2018). The vagus nerve at the interface of the microbiota-gut-brain axis. In Frontiers in Neuroscience (Vol. 12, Issue FEB, p. 49). Frontiers Media S.A. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00049
Bonaz, B., Sinniger, V., Hoffmann, D., Clarençon, D., Mathieu, N., Dantzer, C., Vercueil, L., Picq, C., Trocmé, C., Faure, P., Cracowski, J.-L., & Pellissier, S. (2016). Chronic vagus nerve stimulation in Crohn’s disease: a 6-month follow-up pilot study. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 28(6), 948–953. https://doi.org/10.1111/nmo.12792
Cresci, G. A. M., & Izzo, K. (2019). Gut Microbiome. In Adult Short Bowel Syndrome (pp. 45–54). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-814330-8.00004-4
Dash, S., Clarke, G., Berk, M., & Jacka, F. N. (2015). The gut microbiome and diet in psychiatry. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 28(1), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1097/YCO.0000000000000117
Flint, H. J., Scott, K. P., Louis, P., & Duncan, S. H. (2012). The role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health. In Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology (Vol. 9, Issue 10, pp. 577–589). Nature Publishing Group. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrgastro.2012.156
Salem, I., Ramser, A., Isham, N., & Ghannoum, M. A. (2018). The gut microbiome as a major regulator of the gut-skin axis. In Frontiers in Microbiology (Vol. 9, Issue JUL, p. 1459). Frontiers Media S.A. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2018.01459
Samsel, A., & Seneff, S. (2013). Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases. Entropy, 15(12), 1416–1463. https://doi.org/10.3390/e15041416
Singh, R. K., Chang, H. W., Yan, D., Lee, K. M., Ucmak, D., Wong, K., Abrouk, M., Farahnik, B., Nakamura, M., Zhu, T. H., Bhutani, T., & Liao, W. (2017). Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. In Journal of Translational Medicine (Vol. 15, Issue 1, pp. 1–17). BioMed Central Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12967-017-1175-y