Here's how the microbiome—the colony go micro-organisms that lives on and in our bodies—might hold the key to a healthy immune system, mood and weight, and our overall well-being. Micro-organisms that lives on and in our bodies—might hold the key to a healthy immune system, mood and weight, and our overall well-being.
Imagine that from the time you're born, your body is hosting a daily house party. Who's on the guest list? Roughly 40 trillion of your tiniest, closest friends. And like any lively party, there's a mix of good and bad guests. This community of micro-organisms, which includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and yeast, is collectively known as microbiota, or our microbiome. It's often called the 'forgotten organ' and could be considered one of our largest in terms of cells. In fact, recent research suggests that we have around the same number of bacterial cells as human cells. During a natural birth, you're first exposed to bacteria from your mother, and it's estimated that your ecosystem is largely established by age three. We're used to thinking of bugs as unwanted party crashers, but researchers are discovering that they play an important role in our overall well-being and may hold the key to a host of health-related issues.
MEET YOUR MICROBIOME
If it seems like the word microbiome just recently appeared on your radar, you're not alone. It was only in 2008 that the National Institutes of Health Common Fund's Human Microbiome Project was established to understand the microbiome and how it impacts the way our bodies function.
'We knew that the microbiome was there, but we thought of it only as external and not really in our body. As research expands in this area, we're discovering how much influence it has on well-being,' says Kathy McCoy, the director of the Western Canadian Microbiome Centre and a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine in Calgary. 'One thing we know for sure is that good bacteria benefit our health.'
HAPPY GUT = HEALTHY LIFE
Our gut houses the bulk of our bugs and can carry more than 1,000 different species. The hot spot is the large intestine, which is the most highly colonized by bacteria. 'Bacteria help us digest foods we otherwise couldn't, such as complex carbohydrates,' says McCoy. 'They increase our metabolic capacity, produce vitamins we can't make ourselves and break down food so our bodies get needed nutrients.'
A healthy gut can determine which nutrients are absorbed and which toxins are blocked. 'The state of our gut microbiota has drastically changed as we've transformed our diets, specifically due to a loss of fibre intake,' says McCoy. 'The consumption of more processed foods has negatively influenced the makeup of our microbiota.'
The key to a well-functioning microbiome is a diversity of good bacteria. The latest research shows how our microbiome can affect our immunity, weight and mood, and reveals how you can nurture and strengthen your gut to improve your health.
BOOST YOUR IMMUNITY
'Unlike genes or genetic disorders that are hardwired, we can manipulate our microbiome to some degree,' says McCoy. By nurturing our gut to create a healthy microbiota, we equip it with better ammunition to fight potential invaders, such as bad bacteria (salmonella, for example), making it a strong ally for our immune system.
'Over the past 50 years, in developing countries, the prevalence of autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, has skyrocketed—and some, like Type 1 diabetes, are occurring at a younger age. At the same time, there's a strong belief that the diversity in our microbiota has decreased,' she says. By not supporting and nurturing our microbiome, we leave it less able to protect itself and more vulnerable to invaders. 'The immune system in your gut needs to be equipped like an army, alert to recognize potential danger and armed to fight disease-causing microbes and pathogens,' says McCoy.
MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT
Trying to shed a few pounds? Take a closer look at the health of your gut flora. 'A study found that the microbiota from obese people thrives on low-fibre, high-fat and high-sugar diets,' says McCoy. Also, research suggests that certain bugs may make you desire specific foods, yet others can keep cravings in check. And multiple studies have demonstrated that if your microbiome is unbalanced, it can affect how efficiently food is metabolized.
IMPROVE YOUR MOOD
There might be more to that 'gut feeling' we get. 'There's evidence that some bacteria residing in the gut can affect the brain and your emotional state,' says McCoy. Researchers are working to unlock the gut-brain connection and believe that the microbiome could hold the answer to a number of mental health conditions. 'Researchers are finding that changes in the microbiota might be linked to gastrointestinal abnormalities, including anxiety, depression, autism and hyperactivity. And there are also studies focusing on the pathway between the gut and several neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease,' says McCoy.
4 WAYS TO SUPPORT YOUR MICROBIOME
1. Feed your microbiome One of the best—and easiest—ways to positively impact the gut is through diet. Start by increasing your fibre intake, found in grains, fruit and vegetables. Aim for 25 grams of fibre a day. Avoid high-fat and high-sugar diets, as they promote an unhealthy environment. Instead, eat foods that are full of variety, and include an abundance of fresh produce.
2. Fuel it with fermented foods
Populate the gut with good bacteria by filling up on foods with live and active cultures, such as kefir and some
yogurts, and raw, unpasteurized fermented foods, such as kimchi, pickled vegetables and sauerkraut. Support digestive health and nourish the gut lining to more efficiently absorb nutrients by adding a scoop of a fermented yogurt protein powder to your morning smoothie.
We recommend: Genuine Health Fermented Greek Yogurt Proteins+, $57, genuinehealth.com.
3. Pop a probiotic
'Although our bodies have bacteria, environmental chemicals, poor nutrition, stress and medication easily affect their diversity. Choose a probiotic with 50 to 100 billion active bacteria,' says Toronto-based naturopathic doctor Sara Celik. We like a probiotic that's jam-packed with 50 billion active cultures from 10 strains of bacteria, which is ideal for strengthening the immune system.
4. Monitor antibiotic use
Avoid the overuse of antibiotics, which can reduce the number of bacteria in your gut and break down its ability to resist infection from bad bacteria. 'They're drugs that don't discriminate and kill all forms of bacteria—both good and bad—and can adversely alter the composition of your entire gut flora, which, we believe, is contributing to a host of chronic diseases,' warns McCoy.