What's our Gut Microbiome? (And why we need to look after it!)
The gut microbiome is the name for the community of gut microbes, microscopic bugs in our intestines (our gut).
And it's called a biome because it's like this jungle or interlinked community and so lots of different species together in the gut. We like to think of it as a city of microorganisms all going about their work.
We now know that there’s 1000s of them that co-exist in our, in our lower intestine (gut). And scientists have been learning more about them over the last decade or so.
Some science researchers and gut health experts are now shifting their thinking around the gut microbiome.
Our Gut Microbiome: Our In-Built Pharmacy
One new way they’re talking about the microbiome is as an incredible in-built pharmacists inside us that make chemicals all the time, vital for our body to function. So 1000s of different chemicals are made minute by minute by these microbes when we create the right environment for them to thrive and when they're fed the right foods.
As you hopefully know, most of our immune system is actually hosted in our gut. We know that roughly 70% of the immune system is located in the gut - but it may be even more than that.
And so, our immune cells are in constant contact with our gut microbes through the chemicals they produce. OK it’s maybe not seeming a bit complicated but it’s pretty fascinating once you get under the bonnet.
We all know what happens when our immune system is weak, we’re more prone to getting sick. Our immune system obviously is crucial for our whole body and fighting illnesses, infections, allergies and just our general wellbeing.
We've also learned that our gut microbes are crucial to how our body responds to anything coming into it - medication, antidepressants, painkillers or any chemicals of any forms.
When foreign substances such as these are ingested, they are broken down by the digestive enzymes present in the gut microbiome. These enzymes then activate certain genes within the microbiome which help to metabolise and detoxify any potential toxins within these substances. In this way, the gut microbiome works to protect us from potentially harmful agents entering our bodies.
Research has found that different medications can actually have different effects on the microbial composition of our guts due to their individual chemical compositions. This means that a medication prescribed for one person may not have the same effect on another person's microbiota.
For example, some medications can lead to an increase in certain bacterial populations while reducing others, resulting in a change in overall microbial balance – something which could potentially be beneficial or detrimental depending on individual health needs. Also, other medications may simply cause direct toxicity to certain species of microbes within the gut microbiome and thus reduce overall microbial diversity.
As well as affecting different individuals differently, some chemicals such as antibiotics can produce wide-reaching effects on entire microbial communities by killing off large numbers of beneficial bacteria at once. This can throw off the delicate balance of microbes within our bodies and lead to digestive issues such as dysbiosis or even overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli.
So it's important for individuals taking any kind of medication or chemical substance – even supplements – to be aware of how it may affect their internal ecosystem so they can take measures to ensure its health and functioning remains intact.
So if we look after our gut bugs, they can fight infection and keep the balance of our gut microbiome so by looking after them we’re helping them look after us.
Our Gut Microbiome: Our Mood Regulator
In our microbiome, we’ve also got the microbes that have the ability to produce chemicals that affect our brains. And studies are showing more and more the connection to a healthy gut microbiome and the difference between you being happy, sad or anxious - any range of emotions.
The gut microbiome and its relationship to mental health is an increasingly important area of research. It suggests that the gut bugs living in our digestive tract could have a significant impact on our mental wellbeing. An unhealthy balance of microbes has been associated with a range of psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Multiple studies have shown that an imbalance between friendly bacteria and harmful bacteria can lead to inflammation within the body which can affect brain chemistry and functioning. This inflammation is thought to play an important role in the development of various mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Obviously we’re not suggesting that if your gut health is a bit iffy you’re going to experience these disorders.
But it is reasonable to make the connection that by restoring a healthy balance between the gut’s good bacteria and bad bacteria can then reduce levels of stress hormones in the body and improve overall mood states.
The bidirectional relationship between gut health and mental health means that not only do psychological disturbances affect gastrointestinal function but also that disturbances within the gut may contribute to or worsen certain mental health conditions.
This means that it’s essential for individuals struggling with mental health issues to take care of their guts by eating a balanced diet full of wholesome foods while limiting processed foods, getting enough restful sleep each night, avoiding too much stress and exercising regularly. But it also means that we have to look at our wellness in a rounded approach - what we do, what we eat, the daily choices we make all affect our overall wellness.
Taking care of our gut therefore presents us with a unique opportunity to improve both physical and emotional wellbeing simultaneously!
A reminder of what else our gut microbiome gets up to
They also play a huge role in regulating what we eat by sending signals about our appetite when we feel full.
These gut bugs also provide key vitamins for us. It’s their job to take all the lovely nutrients from the foods we eat and send them round our body for energy, cell repair and fighting infection.
So we're slowly learning these guys are absolutely crucial to how our body responds to anything coming into it. Whether it's painkillers, whether it's antidepressants, whether it's chemicals and forms.
These bacteria can also aid in the elimination of toxins from the body by enabling bile production and neutralising any harmful components that may enter the intestines. So they can also help fight off infection and disease.
The microbiome plays an integral role in maintaining a healthy immune system through its ability to modulate inflammation levels within our bodies. Research has shown that people who have more diverse gut bacterial communities tend to have stronger innate immunity than those with less diversity.
Looking after your gut
If you weigh the gut microbiome, it weighs about the same as our brain. We all know to take care of our heart, protect our brain but if we’re not looking after our gut microbiome, then you’re missing a key aspect of your health.
We have lots of blogs that discuss taking care of your gut. There’s no silver bullet but looking after your gut through nutritious plant-based foods (with lots of fibre for the gut bugs to munch on), as well as daily light exercise, plenty of rest is a great start to looking after your gut bugs so they can look after you.
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