“You are what you eat,” and that has never been so clearly demonstrated than by science’s recent discoveries regarding the human microbiome. The word “microbiome” is the scientific term used to describe the trillions of bacteria inhabiting our bodies, primarily our gastrointestinal tracks. These bacteria are, for the most part, good and exert significant influence over our metabolism, body weight, immune system, appetite, and mood and that’s just scratching the surface. It has been suggested that we should consider our microbiome as a newly discovered organ.

So, where do we get the bacteria living in our gut? So far, researchers believe that the majority of our gut bacteria arrive as a form of inoculation that we receive from our mothers at birth. How we are born (cesarean vs. naturally) goes a long way in determining how much good and bad bacteria we have at the beginning of our lives. This is not to say that we can’t influence our ratio of good to bad bacteria moving forward in our lives. Exposure to dirt, allergens, and other people all influence the type and amounts of bacteria we take on board.

As research into links between microbiome health and our physical health continues, scientists are proving new connections every day – the most famous of which is the gut-brain connection. Researchers are fascinated by the amount of control these bacteria exert over our moods and cognitive function. But the inquiry doesn’t stop there. Numerous studies are also underway into the adverse effects of an unbalanced microbiome. In fact, it has been proven that imbalances in the microbiome can lead to disease; most notably Irritable Bowel Syndrome and its associated subsets, but also certain autoimmune diseases. It is further believed that these same imbalances in gut bacteria can result in a condition known as increased intestinal permeability, also known as “leaky gut.” Increased intestinal permeability is a situation where the intestinal wall allows undigested particles of food and bacteria to escape the digestive tract and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Of course, those particles are not supposed to be there; hence, they can cause a significant disruption of health. The list of investigations into the influences of gut bacteria is long. Scientists are testing microbiome imbalances and increased intestinal permeability for their influence over everything from Alzheimer’s disease to joint pain. Until we have all the facts, the best we can do is err on the side of caution by taking care of our gut and everything (even the bacteria) that goes into it.

So how do we support a healthy microbiome? This question gets us back to where this article began: “You are what you eat.” Eating a wide range of whole foods and keeping potential disruptors out of our systems is the best way to maintain our microbiome’s integrity. Furthermore, your microbiome’s wellbeing is vital to restoring balance if you are already having health problems. The longer these problems persist, the harder they become to treat. This is why I often recommend dietary changes as a first step in fighting disease. By feeding the good bacteria and starving the bad, we can get a handle on what’s going on in your microbiome and bring its proportions back into alignment often eliminating uncomfortable physical symptoms of many diseases. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule. However, starting with a balanced and happy microbiome only puts you in a more powerful position when it comes to addressing any other health concerns.

It’s an exciting time in microbiome research. However, at this early stage, the current discoveries have opened the door to more questions than answers. How is the microbiome affected by each specific internal and external influence? What particular kinds of damage do typical antibiotic compounds wreak on the microbiome? Can the microbiome be manipulated to improve health in the most seriously ill? These are the most pressing issues being studied right now. As we learn more, we will be able to target the microbiome more tactically. In the meantime, we are best advised to take care of our microbiome and strive to maintain its balance. This informed care is the best possible chance we have of resolving often uncomfortable symptoms of disease and protecting our health as we move forward.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only. Always consult your doctor before implementing changes to any existing medication or exercise routines.