Gut bacteria may play a bigger role in overall health than once thought.
It’s common to think of bacteria as bad, dirty, and something that could cause you trouble and disease. So it’s no wonder you want to avoid bacteria as much as possible, right? Maybe not.
The thing to remember is that there are good bacteria and bad. Some cause disease while others are friendly and work to keep you healthy. An emerging and exciting field of study is being taken up by researchers who are investigating the bacteria that inhabit your gastro-intestinal tract. It’s estimated there are 100 trillion microbes and more than 2 million microbial genes (known as your microbiome) living in your gut that influence your brain and behavior, thereby having an effect on your mental and physical health.
While scientists have only scratched the surface when it comes to the relationship between your microbiome and health, here are a few things they know so far.
When babies are first born, they have no bacteria in their intestines. During birth, feeding, and daily life, babies are exposed to bacteria from their mother and environment. Over time, bacteria multiply and become more diverse in the gastrointestinal tract. Unfortunately, the use of antibiotics at a young age may alter the normal balance of bacteria.
By the time a baby is 1 year old, his or her microbial profile is as distinct as a fingerprint. At the age of 3 years, the child’s microbiota profile already looks like that of an adult. It’s during these first few years of life that the bacterial stage is set. From this point on, a disruption in gut bacteria may cause lasting consequences for later health.
The bacteria in your intestines help digest the food you eat, synthesize vitamins, send messages to your immune system, and produce molecules that influence brain function. When the delicate balance of microflora is thrown off, it has the potential to negatively affect health and wellness. An imbalance of bacteria can contribute to inflammation in the body, a major risk factor for a variety of diseases. Some scientists believe the microbiome in your gut is related to every disease out there, ranging from cancer and depression to diabetes and autism and beyond.
Studies of stool samples show people with diseases have different bacteria levels in in their gut as compared to healthy individuals. It’s yet to be determined whether it’s the gut bacteria cause disease or disease causing certain bacteria. But once scientists clearly define the differences in bacteria makeup in healthy versus unhealthy people, they may be able to identify disease risk or presence merely by a stool sample.
A healthy microbiome isn’t necessarily determined by the presence or absence of certain bacteria. Rather, a healthy microbiome is dependent upon how diverse it is. When you have many different types of bacteria that can aid your immune system and produce molecules for healthy brain function, you’re better off.
Research is ongoing, but so far gut bacteria has been clearly linked to diseases such as diabetes, obesity, colon cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism also seem to be associated with changes in the microbiome.
So the question is, “If your gut bacteria are changed, could you prevent or cure disease?” The answer is most likely, yes—it could. Until scientists make further progress in this area, the most obvious way to alter your microbiome is through diet. Avoiding empty carbs, unhealthy fats, and added sugars and eating a wide variety of whole foods is one way to improve the health of your gut. Adding a probiotic supplement or eating foods rich in probiotics is another option.
It sounds strange, but fecal transplants are occasionally used today to treat certain bacterial infections, but one day medical treatments may include customized probiotics to treat specific conditions. Research is ongoing, so stay tuned to see how this innovative research develops in the coming years.