Go With Your Gut! Your Gut Microbiome May be Smarter Than You Think
by Kristen Espinosa
Kristen Espinosa MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian with a Master of Science degree in Nutrition. She works with nutrition clients virtually and in the Los Angeles area, and has also worked as a Clinical Dietitian for UCLA Medical Center, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“Go with your gut!”—a common phrase we hear often, but do we ever think much past the meaning of this other than just following our intuition? Well, what if I told you there is so much more beneath this phrase…and science has the research to back it up? By now, I’m sure we have all heard at least a little bit about the importance of gut health, what foods are good for gut health, and maybe even a little bit about the microbiome diet. But wherever you fall on the gut health knowledge spectrum, this article will help enlighten you on the major role our gut plays in our overall health and what we can do to help our gut live up to its best potential!
We're Mostly Microbes
To begin to understand the impact gut health has on our bodies, we must understand that we as humans are mostly microbes! There are over 100 trillion microbes that live in our bodies and these microorganisms are what we call our “microbiome.”1 Because most of those microbes live in our gastrointestinal tract (primarily our large intestine), we hear “gut microbiome” being used most often. These wonderful bacterial friends that comprise our gut microbiome are essential to our bodies and help us out in so many different ways—improving our digestion, enhancing immunity, protecting our gut wall from harmful bacteria and pathogens, contributing to vitamin production, and even playing a large role in our brain and mental health.2
If you have ever felt that “gut feeling” when making a decision, it is likely from good reason—our very real gut brain connection. Our gut contains over 100 million neurons, coming only in second to the brain in total amount of neurons and glia (another type of neurological cell).3 Our gut microbiome also supports this important gut brain axis by producing hundreds of neurochemicals that impact our brain and body’s functioning. It is estimated that about 95% of serotonin—the key neurotransmitter that regulates our mood, happiness, and anxiety levels—is actually made by our gut bacteria!2 Our gut microbiome also helps us by producing beneficial short chain fatty acids (SCFA) which have been shown to directly impact our health through regulating our immunity, appetite, obesity, metabolism, and new studies are finding it may even regulate our risk for cardiovascular disease.4
We have only uncovered just the tip of the iceberg in regards to how important our gut microbiome is to our health, which proves just how crucial it is to maintain a healthy environment for our helpful gut bacteria to thrive in. That is where probiotics and prebiotics come in. Simply put, probiotics refer to “good bacteria” that when consumed, have a beneficial effect on its host. If you’ve ever inspected the label on the back of your kombucha bottle, you would know there are multitudes of different probiotic strains that exist. One of the most well known strains—lactobacillus—dates far back in history to ancient Greek and Roman recipes written for probiotic rich fermented milk.5
What Are Some Probiotic & Prebiotic Rich foods?
Fast forward to today, we have a slightly more robust selection of probiotic-containing foods to choose from including dairy options such as yogurt, kefir and buttermilk and a wide array of non-dairy options that include kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, natto, pickles, and many other types of fermented foods, drinks, and vegetables. Hot tip—if the label says “contains live and active cultures,” that is a good sign you are about to get a healthy dose of powerful probiotics. Another benefit of living in modern times (other than not having to depend on fermented milk as our only source of probiotics) is the fact that we can also get our probiotics in supplement form as well. The advantage probiotic supplements have is the ability to deliver billions of beneficial bacterial strands in just one small dose.
Prebiotics, on the other hand and contrary to its name, actually aren’t “living” microorganisms at all, but rather are named this because they are precursors to happy and healthy gut bacteria. On very simple terms, they can be seen as “food” for our good gut bacteria and are found in things we eat every day, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Some examples of prebiotic-rich foods include berries, bananas, tomatoes, asparagus, legumes, garlic, onion, oats, barley, and wheat (to name a few). Prebiotics can also be found in supplements as well, usually in the form of fiber known as oligosaccharides or fructooligosaccharides.6
Now that we know the ingredients of what makes a healthy and balanced gut microbiome, what do we do if things are off? We first start developing our own unique microbiomes during the exciting trip out of our mother’s wombs—but many things happen throughout the span of our lifetimes that can alter that intricate bacterial balance. This includes consuming a diet high in processed and fatty foods, overuse of antibiotics, lack of diversity in your diet, improper sleep, lack of exercise, overconsumption of alcohol, and even stress can disrupt the growth of your healthy gut bacteria.7 The good news is that it is never too late to work on restoring gut flora by doing many of the things mentioned in this article—eating probiotic and prebiotic rich foods, working on getting a healthy amount of sleep and exercise, and reducing stress as much as you are able.
In addition to all of this, our gut understands the beauty and importance of diversity, and the best way to ensure this diversity in a proper microbiome diet is to eat a wide range of healthy foods—mix it up and have fun! A helpful way to make sure you are doing this is by keeping a microbiome journal, where you write down your intake of prebiotic and probiotic rich foods. If you find your variety is lacking, this may be a sign to take a trip to the grocery store and throw in a new kombucha, fruit, or yogurt into your cart that you have never heard of before! Be sure to check the label and include a wide variety of probiotic strains including these most common geni strains: Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Lactococus, Streptococcus, and Enterococcus. Remember, the key here is diversity and variety for a most happy gut microbiome.
Trust Your Gut
Discussions on gut health seem to be everywhere these days and scientific research has only just begun to uncover the many ways our gut impacts our health. If there is one thing to take away today, consider thinking about the next time you have that “gut feeling”—you can trust it isn’t just a baseless phrase, but a reminder of the overwhelming role your gut has in your physical and mental health and wellbeing!
Hair M, Sharpe, J. Fast facts about the human microbiome. Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health. Published 2014. https://depts.washington.edu/ceeh/downloads/FF_Microbiome.pdf
Carpenter, S. (2012, September). That gut feeling. Monitor on Psychology, 43(8). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling
Kulkarni S, Ganz J, Bayrer J, Becker L, Bogunovic M, Rao M. Advances in Enteric Neurobiology: The "Brain" in the Gut in Health and Disease. J Neurosci. 2018 Oct 31;38(44):9346-9354. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1663-18.2018. PMID: 30381426; PMCID: PMC6209840.
Chambers ES, Preston T, Frost G, Morrison DJ. Role of Gut Microbiota-Generated Short-Chain Fatty Acids in Metabolic and Cardiovascular Health. Curr Nutr Rep. 2018;7(4):198-206. doi:10.1007/s13668-018-0248-8
Hosono, A. Fermented milk in the orient. In Functions of Fermented Milk: Challengers for the Health Sciences; Nakazawa, Y., Hosono, A., Eds.; Elsevier Science Publishers Ltd.: Barking, UK, 1992; pp. 61–78.
Langdon A, Crook N, Dantas G. The effects of antibiotics on the microbiome throughout development and alternative approaches for therapeutic modulation. Genome Med. 2016;8(1):39. Published 2016 Apr 13. doi:10.1186/s13073-016-0294-z
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