The power of the gut biome to influence your health is astounding. This teeming world of an estimated 100 trillion microbes went unexplored for millennia. But now scientists have begun to probe just how much it affects your everyday well-being and how you can help keep it in shape — or restore it if it is damaged.
When all the various types of bacteria in your biome are in balance (there are both potential troublemakers and good guys), they protect your health by interacting with the lining of your intestines and your immune system to protect you from disease- carrying pathogens, produce essential nutrients (they synthesize vitamin K), digest cellulose, promote gut nerve function and help regulate glucose.
But their smooth functioning can be disrupted by antibiotics, medications, illness, a chronic stress response, aging, poor nutrition and lifestyle choices (excess drinking, poor sleep habits, recreational drug use, lack of physical activity). That can cause certain gut bacteria to produce inflammation that increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, memory loss, cancer and even mental illnesses like depression. It also can increase your risk for allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, fatty liver disease and symptoms of social dysfunction in children.
WHAT WE KNOW
The latest research reveals that a well-balanced biome can help promote good health and recovery in amazing ways — and it reveals the health risks associated with a biome in distress.
1. There may be a link between an unhealthy gut biome and infection following knee replacement surgery, according to a lab study published in the journal Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research. Only 1% of folks getting a knee or hip replacement develop a post-surgical infection. So why do they succumb to this rare complication? It seems those with a compromised immune system because of an off-balance biome are most vulnerable.
2. Parkinson’s disease could happen when the gut biome cannot protect the body from a triggering infection. Other forms of neurological damage, such as multiple sclerosis, may also be caused by a viral infection that invades through the gut.
3. An unbalanced gut microbiome might contribute to anxiety and other mental disorders through something called the “gut-brain axis.” In one metastudy published in BMJ, researchers found that anxiety was eased around half the time by taking probiotics, and even more frequently by making overall upgrades to nutritional habits that encourage a healthy gut biome.
4. An overgrowth of various gut bacteria is associated with high blood pressure. The imbalance causes neuro-inflammation and affects the sympathetic nervous system, which affects blood pressure, according to studies published in Frontiers in Physiology and Microbiome.
So, how can you protect and promote a healthier gut biome?
1. Take antibiotics only when necessary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 33% of prescriptions are unneeded. Never take them if they were not prescribed by your doctor.
2. Adopt a gut-loving diet: fermented and cultured foods like low- or nonfat yogurt, kefir, miso, kim chee, sauerkraut and natto; high-fiber prebiotic foods like 100% whole grains, asparagus, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, bananas and other fruit; as well as flax and chia seeds. Avoid high-fat diets and red meat.
3. Ask your doc about taking a probiotic. If you have small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), you need one kind; for large intestine imbalance you want others.
4. Ditch artificial sweeteners, which one study found might alter gut bacteria in ways that promote metabolic diseases.
5. Adopt stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga and deep breathing, and aim for seven to eight hours of restful sleep nightly.
6. Get plenty of physical activity and exercise: 10,000 steps or the equivalent daily; two strength-building sessions weekly for 30 minutes; and at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobics weekly. It improves the balance of gut bacteria and fights obesity.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chairman of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.