Every system in the human body is inextricably bound through the biological superhighway of the gut-brain axis. The bidirectional communication between the nervous system and intestinal functions interacts with our emotional and cognitive centers, based on the influence of our gut microbiota.
The gut microbiota is made up of roughly 100 trillion bacteria, and various microorganisms like fungi and viruses. They support our immune system, help us absorb nutrients, promote the balanced production of mood-related neurotransmitters, and regulate brain health, heart health, and immune system regulation.
Gut Bacteria Balance
Simply put, the balance (or homeostasis) of our entire body appears to be dependent on the health of our gut microbiome. And a healthy microbiome requires a careful balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria. An imbalance in our gut microbiota composition is called “dysbiosis”, which clinical research has linked to the development of IBD.
Much effort has gone into exploring how we can modulate gut bacteria to ward off or even treat digestive disorders. We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, but preliminary research does show that even 2-4 days of improved food consumption is enough to alter the composition of the microbiome, restoring balance to the entire system.
1. Food for good gut health
The best thing you can do for your gut health is to start eliminating processed food. Diet has possibly the most significant role in shaping the microbiome. Research shows that processed foods can quickly decrease the amount of bacteria in the gut (Bifidobacterium and Eubacterium, in particular). The resulting dysbiosis leads to inflammation and gut barrier permeability, which in turn affects the immune system.
Quick Gut Reset
For a quick gut reset, limit your intake of red meat, sugar, saturated fats, dairy, and foods that have been pre-cooked, canned, frozen, or preserved. It’s also recommended to limit alcohol, cigarettes, and artificial sweeteners, all linked to contributing to dysbiosis. The golden rule is: if you can cook it yourself, do so.
As you phase out processed foods, you’ll want to stock up on gut-healthy probiotic foods, which boost beneficial bacteria and may help guard against gut inflammation. Probiotic foods are live bacteria and yeasts that boost digestive health and contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Probiotic foods are mainly fermented, but not all fermented foods are probiotics.
Probiotic Fermented Foods
- Sourdough bread
- Some cheeses
In any case, eating more fermented foods is beneficial as the fermentation helps break down nutrients, making it easier for the body to digest and absorb them. And, as common wisdom suggests, adding fermented foods to your meal is a great way to ease digestion.
2. Spend time with your animal friends
Scientists believe we may have become too clean for our own good. Our microbiome requires exposure to a variety of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This can be found in nature, but those who spend more time indoors may be scrubbing away important microorganisms our system needs. Thankfully, man’s best friend is here to help.
According to a recent meta-analysis, children who grow up with pets or farm animals have a reduced risk of developing IBD. One study found that pet ownership or exposure to pets increases at least two types of beneficial bacteria (lowering risk for atopy and obesity). When your dog drags in mud and mess from outside, he’s actually bringing home a plethora of microbes that strengthen our immune system as children, and later on in life.
Although the study of animals and the microbiome is fairly new, some researchers suspect that exposure to bacteria from animals may influence how our gut bacteria metabolize mood-regulating neurotransmitters. This could explain why spending time with dogs (or any animal, really) has an antidepressant effect.
3. Get Dirty
Did you know that our prehistoric ancestors used to eat soil as a supplement? Certain types of mineral and trace element-rich soil were considered detoxifying agents and were even used medically, often for gastrointestinal ailments.
While we don’t recommend running outside to eat earth, researchers believe that contact with soil (and its microbiome) is beneficial to the health of our gut microbiota. Our intestinal microbiome was shaped by and evolved alongside our environmental microbes, and is likely very much influenced by the exposure (or lack therefore) to the natural elements.
For instance, a research team in Finland found that kids from rural areas had a more diverse range of bacteria on their skin, as well as fewer allergies and stronger immune systems. Country kids with an abundance of Acinetobacter were more capable of producing the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 than children from urban environments.
All in all, it’s pretty clear that getting our hands in the soil is great for our gut. It’s also great for our mood. We’ve always known gardening is relaxing, but researchers recently found that digging around in the soil stirs up bacteria that, when inhaled, stimulates serotonin production.
Back to Nature
The more we study the human gut microbiome, the more evident it becomes that a healthy gut requires a return to nature – whether through the food we eat, our daily activities, or our bond with animal life. Even the pace of our modern lives can impact our gut health, with stress being closely tied to poor digestive health and inflammation.
The best advice is to learn from our ancestors and get back to our roots: slow down, eat clean, play with your dog, walk in nature, roll around in the dirt. Your gut will thank you for it.