Lately, researchers have been spending a lot of time researching this thing called the microbiome. One of the biggest challenges when studying the microbiome is actually trying to define it. Even those that specialize in studying it aren’t really sure how to define it–or even what to call it. Some use the term microbiota as a synonym for the microbiome.
What we can agree on is that, first, we’re talking about the good bacteria found in the gut. And we’re talking about LOTS of them! It is estimated that each person has anywhere from 10-100 trillion of these good bacteria in our intestines. These are good bacteria; they help keep us healthy.
What’s amazing is that each person’s microbiome is different. There are lots of different strains or species of these good bacteria within each person, but in different quantities. It is believed there are at least 400 different species of these good bacteria within each person. It’s these different quantities that make everyone’s microbiome unique to each person. Some researchers believe that the microbiome is not only important for gut health, but may influence the health of other organs, too. Connections between gut microbiota and the brain, for example, are being studied.
The good bacteria in the gut may affect how the body breaks down and absorbs the foods we eat, which could then influence our appetites and potentially our body weight. However, this is still being studied, so we don’t know if and how the microbiome influences body weight. Regardless, it is always a good idea to try to preserve the health of your gut.
As for destroying your gut microbiome, it would be quite a feat to destroy all of these good bacteria, but it is possible to temporarily decrease the amount found in the gut. One of the most common ways this happens is by taking antibiotics. We take antibiotics to help us get over bacterial infections. The trouble is these medications don’t know the difference between good versus bad bacteria. Antibiotics just kill bacteria–good and bad–it doesn’t matter. Now please, don’t get me wrong. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics because you have an infection like bacterial pneumonia, strep throat, or a sinus infection for example, please take them! If you skip taking your antibiotics, the infection can spread and cause much more serious problems.
But let’s say you’ve finished your course of antibiotics and want to get the numbers of good bacteria back to a healthy level. How might you go about doing that?
One of the best ways is to do this to consume fiber-rich foods. Foods like beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains, oats, fruits, and vegetables will support the regrowth of these beneficial gut bacteria. Consuming a combination of these foods will provide your body with short-chain fatty acids. These short-chain fats help the body create more healthy gut bacteria. At this time, it’s not worth going out and buying short-chain fatty acid supplements. Instead, eating the fiber-rich foods above would be the way to go. If you can consume somewhere between 25 to 35 grams of fiber each day from these foods, you will replenish those good gut bacteria in no time.
What about probiotics, like those found in yogurt? Probiotics are live bacteria that support the health of our microbiome. And, yes, foods like yogurt, Kefir, and Yakult contain lots of probiotics. The trouble is we don’t really know how helpful these foods are when it comes to actually increasing the number of good bacteria in your gut. This is because these foods have to first pass through the stomach before they get to the intestine. The stomach is a pretty harsh environment for most things. It’s possible that many of those good bacteria are destroyed before they get to the intestines, where they can thrive.
We must also be careful before supplementing with probiotics, as well. As I’ve mentioned many times before, the supplement industry is kind of like the Wild West right now–supplement manufacturers are creating products that aren’t being tested by independent third parties, so they are putting fillers in their products and marketing them as supplements. It is very possible that you could go out and purchase what you think is a probiotic supplement, but if we were to actually analyze the product to see what it’s truly made of, we might find it contains no good bacteria at all. Or if the product does contain good bacteria, maybe there aren’t enough of them to make a difference.
It really comes back to eating whole foods that are good sources of dietary fiber. Again, those are foods like beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, oats, fruits, and vegetables… You know, all of the stuff I end up recommending we consume regularly anyway.