by Patricia Chaney October 09, 2020 3 min read

As you go about your daily life, you're probably not thinking about the trillions of microscopic organisms living inside you. Frankly, it's strange to consider. But when it comes to your health, these microorganisms — which even outnumber the human cells that contain your DNA — play a vital role in your overall well being..

As you work hard to stay healthy, the army of organisms in your gut can help. Your gut includes your stomach and intestines, where food passes through and is broken down. Ensuring you have the right balance of organisms in your gut is an important consideration when it comes to overall health.

The Basics of the Gut Microbiome

Your gut consists of a collection of bacteria, yeast, viruses and other tiny organisms called microorganisms, or microbes. Together, they comprise your microbiome, which acts almost as its own ecosystem. These microorganisms are present from birth, and you may gain or lose hundreds of species throughout your life. A healthy microbiome is home to the both the optimal type and level of each microorganism that work together -- and with you -- to thrive.

Each microorganism plays a different, important role in digestion. Generally, they break down the food you eat into usable pieces and help you absorb and process essential nutrients to keep your body running optimally.

How Your Microbiome Changes Throughout Your Life

When you're born, your microbiome starts populating based on your mother's microbes. From there, what you eat or get exposed to determines what types of bacteria are in your gut. Certain foods can add new species to your microbiome, and you may lose some if you take certain medications such as an antibiotic, which can't distinguish between the "bad" bacteria causing an infection and your gut's "good" bacteria.

Having a diverse set of microorganisms is key to how well your gut's microbiome functions, according to the British Medical Journal (BMJ). When some species of microbes increase and others die off, your gut's diversity declines, resulting in an imbalance. This imbalance is called dysbiosis.

The Gut Microbiome's Impact on Health

Scientists have studied thousands of strains of microbes to learn their functions and role in our health. A wealth of research from Nature and other journals has shown that people with certain health challenges tend to have less diversity in their gut microbiome. Though further research is needed, it seems that an imbalance — too few of some microbes, an overgrowth of others or both — may create some unpleasant side effects, including:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Low energy
  • Low mood
  • Changes in appetite
  • Skin issues

Plus many other problems that have an impact on your daily life.

Researchers are still searching for a comprehensive answer to the question of why these tiny organisms affect so much of your body. One answer may be that dysbiosis causes systemic inflammation, which is a contributing factor to many chronic diseases. The gut microbiome is also linked to your immune system function, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.

Help Your Microbiome Flourish

Improving the balance of species within your gut microbiome is in your control. The substances you're exposed to and everything you ingest have the greatest influence on which microbes flourish and which don't. Here are two ways you can support a diverse and balanced microbiome.

First, it's essential to eat a wide range of foods. Choose fruits, vegetables, meats, whole grains, nuts, seeds and other whole foods. Also, adding natural probiotic foods to your diet, like kimchi and sauerkraut, which contain live srains of beneficial bacteria. Dietary fiber and prebiotics found in plant foods may be especially important to feeding good microorganisms, while artificial sweeteners and food additives found in many processed foods promote types of bacteria that increase inflammation.

Woman buying kale at a farmers market

Second, if you're experiencing ongoing digestive issues, you may want to start by taking a targeted gut protocol. Protocols targeting the microbiome aim to improve diversity in your gut by nurturing beneficial microbes while curbing the growth of others that tend to dominate the resources of their more fragile neighbors.

Building a healthy gut takes time, but is often the best place to start when it comes to rebalancing your health. Making small daily changes, such as adding more variety of whole foods to your diet can increase the diversity and improve the balance of those tiny organisms, putting you on the path to feeling your best.