Gut Microbiome 101

The human body is mostly composed of water and microscopic bugs. Gross perhaps, but true nonetheless. All told, we’re about 60 percent water, with many of our individual parts carrying a much higher percentage than that. For example, the lungs are nearly 85 percent water. Even our bones are about 30 percent water.

And the bugs? Trillions of different viruses, bacteria, and fungi live in and on us. Known as the “microbiome”, they live in our mouths, our digestive tracts, and on our skin. They form colonies and work en masse to support our good health. Their numbers outnumber our own human cells 10 to 1. There are so many that the microbiome, all these bugs, can weigh anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds. Collectively, the microbes in a single person’s microbiome contain 200x more genes than the human genome. It’s absolutely staggering. We are a staggering amount of bugs and water. 

What Is The Gut Microbiome?

From the moment we are born, our own personal microbiome begins forming. During the birth process, as the fetus passes through the birth canal, it takes a bit of the mother’s microbiome with it to get the process started. From there, as the newborn experiences the world on its own and encounters new things, the microbiome grows and changes too.

Diversity is good in a microbiome. Mud pies have their place. The more viruses, bacteria and the like that we can introduce our bodies to, the stronger our immunity generally becomes. The composition of our microbiome changes throughout our life. Most changes occur at the beginning of life and toward the end, which makes sense because these are the times when there are the most profound physical changes happening in us.

How Does The Gut Microbiome Influence Health? 

Up to 1,000 different species of bacteria live in the human gut, and each of them plays a specific role in keeping things balanced throughout your body, particularly with regard to digestion. Most of these bacteria (and viruses and fungi too) are integral to good health. As you might expect, some may have the capacity to work against your healthy self too. That’s one way a poor diet gets on top of you.

You could think of your body’s microbiome as another organ of sorts. It’s there to support and protect your health, so the more you know about it, the more you can support and protect it. 

How Does The Microbiome Influence Behavior? 

All those bugs, with their multitude of genes and cell counts that dwarf our own, certainly have an effect on how things run. And our relationship with them is symbiotic. We feed them well, and in turn they keep us strong and healthy. 

We are wholly dependent on our bugs, to the extent that our brain’s serotonergic system, a key factor in emotional activity, doesn’t develop as it should without microbes. But that’s not all; our brains and guts actually communicate. This is known as the gut-brain axis. When the microbiota in the gut are unhealthy or out of balance, a condition known as dysbiosis, it can and will affect a person’s thoughts and behavior. As Science Direct puts it: “Gut microbes are part of the unconscious system regulating behavior.”

What To Eat To Support A Healthy Microbiome

Not only are you chock full of water, and so many microscopic bugs that they collectively weigh actual pounds, but for all intents and purposes you’re pretty much a donut. You’re not quite as sugary sweet or puffy or warm and fluffy like a donut, but there is a direct route straight through you, and your parts are all sealed around it, exactly like a delicious Krispy Kreme. 

Your mouth is the gateway to the rest of your body, and it’s also a mirror of what’s happening in and around your donut hole. You have an oral microbiome too, composed of whole other colonies of bacteria than the gut. In fact from the front of your mouth to the back, the colonies are different from their neighbors. Plus, the state of things in our gut affects the health of our mouth and thus the composition of our oral microbiome. And vice-versa.

So, it all starts with what you put in your mouth. Make it good, make it quality, make your diet matter to you because it does matter to your body on every level down to its cells. 

What to eat for a healthy microbiome? 

  • Fresh, whole foods, fruits, and vegetables, and a great variety of them.  
  • Foods with probiotic qualities to them, like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha. 
  • Lots of clean, filtered water.

Think of it this way: The inhabitants of the various colonies have dietary needs of their own. And these colonies are vast, it’s a lot of different mouths to feed, so to speak. You can make sure everyone gets something good, by making it all good. 

The donut analogy is a perfect reminder that we are of this earth. We are one with everything around us. Everything that goes in goes through. We breathe in what was out, and we breathe out what was in. Our bodies communicate with the environment in this way. They glean information from the air we breathe and the food we consume, and in turn that informs our behavior and actions, even on an unconscious level. We are everything, and everything is us. 

What Damages The Microbiome?

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “garbage in, garbage out”. A diet that is heavy on food that isn’t real food is a quick and easy way to wreck your microbiome. Think fast food, loaded with additives and preservatives, candy, ice cream, milkshakes, Doritos, cheesy poofs, you get the idea.

Your body doesn’t know what to do with some of this stuff because components of it are not natural. They are not a part of your microbiome’s diet so they really shouldn’t go in your mouth. Literally no part of your body has a purpose for some of this stuff, and that’s where things go haywire. 

Dysbiosis is what happens when the microbiome is out of balance. Digestion problems, behavior issues, you-name-it can start to go wrong when things go awry in your gut.

Antibiotics are another surefire way to wreak havoc on your microbiome, in record time. Meant to kill bacterial and viral infections, antibiotics have no way of selectively killing off certain bacteria, so it just decimates everything it can. Sometimes antibiotics are necessary, no doubt. It’s just good to know what they do so you can help undo the bad parts.

A poor diet can certainly wreck your microbiome, but so can a diet that is poor for you in particular. Obviously you don’t eat things you’re allergic to, but in general it’s good to be mindful of the way foods make you feel and what they do to your body/energy level/digestion.

Some people can’t eat tomatoes or they end up with very sore joints. For others, dairy is a hard “no”. Your microbiome is as unique as your fingerprint, so your diet should be well-tailored to you. Eat the things that make you feel great, and steer clear of the things that don’t. It sounds so simple, but how often do we find ourselves not adhering to this wisdom?

Can The Microbiome Be Changed?

When we don’t adhere to our body’s natural wisdom, we pay the price on some level. Each of us is intimately familiar with the quality of our digestion, how it feels to be in our body, what the weather is like in our brain. When things are out of whack, chances are good that our gut health could use some shoring up. 

The great news is that not only can you change and improve your microbiome, you can turn the tide rather quickly.

The trick is just to get back to basics: 

  • Eat the fresh, whole foods your body craves. Stay away from animal protein, sugar, and trans fats in particular. No fast food, lots of fiber. 
  • Get tons of rest. This may come as no surprise but your gut has a circadian rhythm too. If you’ve been feeling run down and you’re trying to reset your gut, lean into naps and extra rest if your body is asking for it.
  • Go out and mingle with your natural counterparts. Get some fresh air. Remember: you are everything and everything is you. Do some gardening. Go for a long walk in the woods. Get a little dirty. Soak it all in.
  • Water. Drink enough, then drink a little more.
  • Eat some yogurt, maybe try probiotics. Probiotics, when you can find the right ones for you, can be a godsend. Bye bye gut issues. But remember the diversity of your gut… the chances of you getting it right the first time are not necessarily great. So you might have to go down the rabbit hole of learning what each probiotic does, what bacteria(s) it supports, then cross reference that with what’s happening with you. Or, try introducing kim chee, or kombucha, and/or other probiotic foods that may cast a wider net and feed more bacteria better.
  • Rinse and repeat. Check in with how you’re feeling. Make incremental changes until you feel back to your normal self. 

You are a wonderful water-soaked donut, stuffed with bacteria, viruses, and fungi, covered in more bacteria, viruses, and fungi. And there is nothing healthier or more natural than that. 

By getting to know your microbiome, you’re really getting to know yourself on a deeper level. When you are able to communicate and connect with your body in this way, it starts to have a ripple effect throughout your whole life. Relationships shift, energy abounds, and life seems to open up in a different way, all because the bugs in your belly are just pleased to be here. 

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