Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is credited with stating “all disease begins in the gut.” He made this connection over 2500 years ago. Modern science now proves just how right he was.
Gut health is about more than digestion: the health of the gut influences every other system in the body. Understanding these connections and the microbiome’s role is truly a new frontier of medicine. The more we unlock the secrets gut bacteria hold, the more we understand what heals the body and promotes overall well-being.
Keep reading to learn more about this important and exciting topic.
This article will cover:
- What you need to know about the microbiome
- How the microbiome develops and shifts throughout life
- How gut health connects to overall health
- How to improve gut health, including specific gut-healing foods
Let’s dive in!
What is the Microbiome?
The human microbiome refers to the trillions of microorganisms (and their genes) that live in and on the body. These organisms include:
Humans and the microbiome evolved together in a symbiotic relationship, meaning that we both benefit. We have more microorganisms living in and on us than cells in our bodies! From that perspective, we are a minority in our own skin.
The overall microbiome includes the gut microbiome, skin microbiome, oral microbiome, vaginal microbiome, and so on. All are unique and yet interconnected.
The Microbiome Throughout Life
We used to think that a baby was sterile inside the womb and that they received their microbiome from their mother through the birth process. While the mother’s microbiome plays a critical role in developing the baby’s microbiome, we now have some evidence that the microbiome begins even before delivery, while in the womb!
Microorganisms move from the gut, through the blood, and make their way into the baby’s body via the placenta. Even before that, some evidence suggests that bacteria are present at conception.
While it’s always an excellent time to pay attention to gut health, supporting the microbiome throughout pregnancy may be a significant time to do so. Luckily, many women find increased motivation during pregnancy for diet and lifestyle changes. Learn what foods support the microbiome that you pass to your children below.
Bacteria, and other organisms, are also passed from mom to baby through breastmilk. Breastmilk contains important nutrition that helps the baby’s microbiome mature, supporting immunity and development.
If breastfeeding is not possible, many infant formulas supply certain beneficial bacteria and fiber to emulate breastmilk. In addition, infant probiotics may be supportive.
Many studies have looked at the difference between the microbiomes of breastfed babies compared to formula-fed babies and babies born vaginally compared to those delivered via cesarian section. The more we continue to learn, the better we will be able to support all mothers and babies with targeted microbiome support.
The basic composition of the microbiome is set early in life but also constantly changes along with environmental, nutritional, and lifestyle influences. When you make changes to your nutrition, the microbiome adjusts accordingly, sometimes in only a few days.
Later in life, the diversity of the microbiome tends to decline, along with changes in digestion, immunity, nutrition, and more. Shifts in the microbiome influence the aging process. This connection suggests that supporting the microbiome as we get older may be one way to stay young.
Why is Gut Microbiome Health Important?
Everything in the body is connected. Gut health is connected to all aspects of health.
A well-researched example is the gut-brain axis, where the microbiome and the brain communicate. Instead of the brain only signaling down to the gut, we know that the gut also sends signals to the brain, playing an essential role in brain health and function.
A healthy gut microbiome is vital for:
- Genetic expression
- Skin health
- Preventing infections
Nutrient production (such as short-chain fatty acids and specific vitamins)
- And more
This list is likely just the tip of the iceberg as we continue to learn more.
Dysbiosis, an imbalanced microbiome, is associated with:
- Poor digestion
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Metabolic syndrome
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune disease
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Depression and anxiety
- Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease
Since all systems are connected to the gut, it’s easy to see that gut imbalances may contribute to symptoms or disease.
But luckily, the health of the microbiome is largely in our control by how we live daily. And when we focus on gut health, we improve body function.
How to Improve the Microbiome and Support Gut Health
Unfortunately, many aspects of our modern world work against gut health. These include:
- Antibiotics and other medications
- Chlorine and other disinfectants
- Too many processed, refined foods
One way to improve gut health is to avoid or minimize these as possible while also working on the pieces within your control to improve and support the gut.
A primary tool to heal and maintain optimal gut health is nutrition.
Changing what you eat or even simply adding in new foods can shift the microbiome favorably in just a few days. The goal is to promote an abundance of diverse beneficial bacteria (called probiotics) and other beneficial microorganisms.
Here is how to rebuild and optimize the microbiome through diet:
1. Eat fermented foods. Traditionally fermented foods are a natural source of probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, that help to populate the gut. These include:
Consider these foods condiments and include small servings with meals at least once per day.
Using a probiotic supplement is a convenient way to increase beneficial bacteria in the gut and the perfect complement to a gut-healthy diet. Twenty2 Nutrition Probiotic combines probiotics with prebiotics (more on prebiotics below) for optimal benefit.
2. Eat more fiber. Fiber is a carbohydrate found in whole plant foods that we don’t have the enzymes to digest, but our gut bacteria do. Fiber is essential for the health of the digestive system, metabolism, blood sugar balance, and more.
To increase fiber, eat more whole plant foods; some that are exceptionally high in fiber include:
- Chia seeds
- Apples and pears
- Unrefined oats
Current nutrition recommendations suggest 38 grams of fiber per day for adult men, 25 grams per day for adult women, 28 grams per day during pregnancy, and 29 grams per day while nursing. Most Americans don’t hit these targets, so increasing to these levels is the first step. Still, you can certainly go higher for additional benefits.
If you aren’t sure how much fiber you are eating, try tracking your diet in an online app for a few days to get a ballpark amount.
3. Focus on prebiotics. Prebiotics are components of the food we eat that provide food to the probiotics in the gut.
Prebiotics include specific fibers such as inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS). Foods that contain these prebiotics include:
- Green bananas
- Burdock root
- Chicory root
Polyphenols are also prebiotics and serve as the food source for certain beneficial organisms. Polyphenols are colorful plant compounds, often with antioxidant and other health-promoting properties. Foods high in polyphenols include:
- Red grapes
- Black and green tea
Including more of these specific prebiotic foods is a delicious way to improve microbiome health.
4. Increase minerals. Minerals are critical for health and wellness, and one reason their role in the gut. A mineral-rich diet influences microbiome health in many ways that we are only beginning to learn about, such as promoting the growth of certain microorganisms and promoting diversity among beneficial bacteria. Many of the foods already listed here are rich in minerals, as well as:
- Nuts and seeds
- Meat, shellfish, fish, dairy
- Dark leafy green vegetables
An easy way to boost minerals is with Twenty2 Nutrition Greens, which contains 9.5 servings of organic vegetables, digestive enzymes, and probiotics in every scoop. It’s one of the best products for gut health and overall health. Learn more about the benefits of greens here.
If you are ready to reduce bloat, decrease inflammation, have clearer skin, and feel happier, start with your gut. An imbalanced gut microbiome may be a root cause of various health problems. As you restore gut health, overall health improves from head to toe.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Through her private practice, Ryah helps women use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah at econutrition.co.