The gut microbiota is one of my favorite things to talk about. (File that statement under things you will only hear a dietitian say…) But really, I am completely fascinated by the gut and its role in our overall health.
The gut microbiota is the microbial population (bacteria) that lives in our intestine and helps our body to function properly. This microbial population is so complex and diverse. Not only does it vary from human to human, but the contents of an individual’s gut microbiota can change rapidly depending on a variety of factors.
Stick with me. This is about to get a little science-y, but I promise I’ll bring it back to food. That’s what we all really want to talk about, right?
The gut microbiota begins to form as early as birth. The mode of delivery and whether the infant was breastfed or not has a huge impact on what types of bacteria colonize our gut. Genetics also play a role in determining the composition of our gut microbiota. And then there are things that disrupt our gut, like antibiotics. These may decrease the biodiversity of microbial population (which is why you’ll often hear doctors or pharmacists recommend eating yogurt or taking a probiotic while on antibiotics).
Our gut microbiota is involved in the development and progression of many diseases. Hippocrates figured this out over 2,000 years ago and coined the statement “all diseases originate in the gut.”
The gut may play a role in GI disorders, like irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. Patients with these GI disorders have been shown to have altered microbial populations present in their gut as compared to their healthy counterparts, showing that there is a link between the gut microbiota and GI disorders.
The gut also plays an important role in metabolic disorders, like obesity and type 2 diabetes. The microbiota can have an influence on weight gain and metabolism of its host. Research is being done to determine how and why the ratio of different types of bacteria vary between obese and non-obese subjects. Identifying which microbial populations may be contributing to obesity and type 2 diabetes will have a huge impact in the future treatment of these metabolic diseases.
The gut microbiota also affects neurological disorders, ranging from autism spectrum disorder to ADHD to depression and anxiety. There is a complex relationship between the gut and the brain, and it is often referred to as the microbiota-gut-brain axis. It is bidirectional, which basically means that the brain impacts the gut and the gut impacts the brain. Similar to patients with GI disorders, patients with neurological disorders have been shown to have a different microbial composition of their gut than their healthy counterparts.
Now that we know how impactful our gut microbiota is on our overall health, how do we best take care of our gut health? The first thing that probably comes to mind for most people is the use of probiotics, which are living microorganisms that may provide health benefits to the host. Probiotics can work even more efficiently when taken with prebiotics. These are basically probiotic-boosters. Prebiotics work to stimulate the growth or activity of the good bacteria in our intestine. Probiotics can easily be found over the counter at most drug or health stores. Things to look for when picking out a probiotic: high CFU count, multiple strains of bacteria, and whether or not it contains prebiotics as well.
Finally, we can take care of our gut health by feeding our bodies well. One of the primary jobs of the gut microbiota is to ferment indigestible fiber. Most Americans don’t consume nearly enough fiber, keeping the gut from doing its job. The gut microbiota functions best and provides the most overall health benefits when it is able to do exactly what it is designed to do. Increasing fiber consumption can increase the amount of good bacteria present in the intestine. Some great high fiber food choices include resistant starches, like whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, avocados, and bananas. We know how important fiber is at Katie’s Plates, so the majority of our meals contain about 20-40% of the daily value recommendation for fiber.
I hope you feel like you’ve gotten a much better understanding of the gut microbiota, why it is so important, and how to take care of it. If you have any additional questions or would just like to chat about the gut microbiota (I’m telling you… it’s my favorite thing to talk about!), feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Megan is a dietetic intern for Samford University and is currently pursuing a master of science degree in Nutrition. She is passionate about helping people to nourish their bodies well with proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. You can follow Megan on Instagram @megeliseandrews.
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwhAD2Nhkb1IajFOMnRGZWRyRGM/view?usp=sharing (This is a research paper that I wrote on the gut microbiota and mood disorders. Much of the information from this post comes from this paper.)