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  • Monika Getty

The Importance of a Healthy Gut

It's been in the news a lot lately: your gut microbiome and how it relates to your overall health. But what does microbiome mean? Simply put, the microbiome is the microorganisms (previously called gut flora) that reside in the established environment of your guts. Our gut contains trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria with more than 3 million genes. Microbiota can weigh up to 2 kg in total! One third of our gut microbiota is common to most people, while two thirds are specific to each one of us. That means that while we all have some bacteria in common, my gut microbiome is different from yours.

So what do these microorganisms do in our intestines? Its functions are many:

* It helps us digest certain foods not digested by the stomach and small intestines

* It aids in the production of certain vitamins (vitamins B and K)

* It helps the immune system, performing a barrier effect

* It affects gut health: The bloating, cramps and abdominal pain that people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome experience may be due to gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of healthy to unhealthy microbes). This is because the microbes produce a lot of gas and other chemicals, which contribute to the symptoms of intestinal discomfort. However, certain healthy bacteria in the microbiome can improve gut health: Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, which are found in probiotics and yogurt, can help seal gaps between intestinal cells and prevent leaky gut.

These species can also prevent disease causing bacteria from sticking to the intestinal wall; in fact, taking certain probiotics that contain Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli can reduce symptoms of IBS.

* It helps against aggressive microorganisms, maintaining the wholeness of the intestinal mucosa

* It may affect your weight: an imbalance of healthy and unhealthy microbes (called gut dysbiosis) may contribute to weight gain. A study published in the Journal of Proteome Research in 2012 suggested that a lack of bacteria in the large intestine may drive obesity by slowing down the activity of brown fat, which protects against weight gain when stimulated by burning calories.

* It may benefit heart health: a recent study found that the gut microbiome plays an important role in promoting "good" HDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Certain unhealthy species in the gut microbiome may also contribute to heart disease by producing trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).

TMAO is a chemical that contributes to blocked arteries, which may lead to heart attacks or stroke.

* It may affect brain health: according to the American Psychological Association, gut bacteria produces an array of neurochemicals that the brain uses for the regulation of physiological and mental processes, including memory, learning and mood. In fact, 95% of the body's supply of serotonin is produced by gut bacteria, according to the APA. Also, a study in 2013 by researchers from Arizona State University found that children with autism had lower levels of 3 types of bacteria (Prevotella, Coprococcus and Veillonellaceae), compared with children free of the condition. A more recent study found that concentrations of specific chemicals produced by gut bacteria called metabolites in fecal samples of children with autism differed to the concentrations found in the fecal samples of children without the disorder; this led the researchers to hypothesize that gut microbes alter the metabolites associated with communication between the gut and the brain, which interferes with brain function.

There's even some evidence that changes in the gut microbiome can be an early indicator for Parkinsons:

So how do you make sure your gut microbiome is healthy? There are many ways, including:

* Eat a wide variety of foods: this can lead to a diverse microbiome. Eating beans, legumes and whole fruit which contain lots of fiber and can promote the growth of Bifidobacteria.

* Breastfeed for at least 6 months: breastfeeding is very important in the development of the gut microbiome. Children who were breastfed for at least 6 months had more Bifidobacteria than those that were bottle fed.

* Eat foods rich in polyphenols: polyphenols are plant compounds found in red wine, whole grains, dark chocolate and olive oil, which are broken down by the gut microbiome to stimulate healthy bacterial growth.

* Eat prebiotic food: prebiotics are a type of fiber that stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria by feeding them. Prebiotic foods include Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, bananas, oats and apples.

* Take a probiotic supplement: these supplements contain live healthy bacteria to help restore the gut to a healthy state.

* Limit the use of antibiotics (if possible): antibiotics kill not only the bad bacteria, but the good as well, so only use them when medically necessary.

* Eat fermented foods: fermented foods naturally contain healthy bacteria (mainly Lactobacillus) helping keep your gut microbiome in a healthy balance. Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and more. All cultures have their own kinds of fermented foods; for a comprehensive list, see this article:

You can easily make fermented foods at home instead of buying them. Check out these 2 articles with links to recipes:

As you can see, keeping your gut microbiome healthy benefits not just your digestive system but also your mental health, immune system and a whole host of other conditions. So help keep your gut healthy, and it'll help keep you healthy. Sounds like a fair deal to me!

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