Scientists have long known that good gut health is essential to a well-functioning human body, transporting food from the mouth to the stomach and processing it to absorb essential nutrients. But in recent years, we’ve developed a heightened appreciation for gut health’s contribution to overall health. What is the microbiome? How does it connect to the brain? And what can you do to protect and sustain it? Here is our overview into everything to do with gut health.
THE MICROBIOME DEFINED
The microbiome is a collection of trillions of microorganisms (also called microbiota and microbes) of thousands of different species mainly concentrated in the small and large intestines, but distributed throughout the body as well. These organisms consist mainly of bacteria, but can also include fungi, parasites and viruses. The composition of each person’s microbiome is entirely unique, first established by DNA, then affected by environmental factors and diet throughout one’s life as well as the use of antibiotics, illness, stress, aging and lifestyle. A healthy microbiome is perfectly balanced, simultaneously able to ward off infection and distribute vitamins and nutrients within the body. However, when that balance is disrupted, the connection between symbiotic and pathogenic bacteria is interrupted and the body becomes more susceptible to disease. In fact, autoimmune diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia are linked to a dysfunctional microbiome. The imbalance in disease-causing microbes accumulate over time, changing gene activity and metabolic processes, provoking an abnormal immune response against substances and tissues normally present in the body. According to the University of Washington, autoimmune diseases are passed down in families by inheriting the family’s microbiome, and not by DNA inheritance as previously thought.
THE GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION
You’re probably familiar with the expression “going with your gut,” but have you ever considered that your gut may indeed possess its own kind of intelligence? According to Johns Hopkins University, researchers are increasingly considering the influence of proper digestion on mood and thought patterns in addition to physical health. In fact, they’ve started referring to it as the enteric nervous system (ENS). There is increasing, irrefutable evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal tract may send signals to the central nervous system that cause mood changes. Such a link between emotional and physical health may explain why a higher percentage of people with IBS and related bowel issues develop mood disorders, like depression and anxiety. This link between the “two brains” also means that therapeutic measures to treat one inevitably ricochet onto the other. As such, gastroenterologists may prescribe antidepressants or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for IBS, for example, as they can calm and quiet symptoms within the gut, just like they calm symptoms of mood disorders.
IMPROVING GUT HEALTH
As you can probably gather, improving and maintaining gut health can have a direct effect on your emotional health as well as your overall health. So, how do you go about doing that? Probiotics are an excellent, effective way to balance your microbiome and increase the number of healthy bacteria it contains. You can either consume them in the form of supplement pills or find them naturally in certain foods and beverages, like fermented products. Throughout the fermentation process, the bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food or beverage item, which not only preserves the item for much longer but creates an optimal living environment for healthy bacteria, There are many fermented products that you can incorporate into your diet, like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sourdough bread and, of course, kombucha. Kombucha is generally made from black or green tea, a blend of bacteria and yeast (the SCOBY) and sugar. Throughout the fermentation process, the sugar is broken downinto fructose and glucose, which feed the yeast, which in turn feeds the bacteria, populating the drink with good-for-you probiotics.
To conclude, a healthy microbiome is essential to good gut health and therefore overall health. Far more than just aiding in digestion, the microbiome can have a direct effect on your mood and emotional health just as much as it can fight disease. To ensure that your body maintains the necessary balance of symbiotic and pathogenic bacteria, you need to take into account your lifestyle, age, stress, illness as well as your diet. To learn about increasing the number of healthy bacteria in your microbiome, read more about probiotics in kombucha here.