Written by Angela Rush, MSN, RN, MEDSURG-BC

There has been an increasing interest in the role that the gut microbiome plays in health wholeness.  The gut microbiome refers to the bacteria in your stomach and intestines, and as we are learning, it plays a big role in how our bodies function in general. From cardiac conditions to weight management, the gut microbiome can help or hinder.

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First, let’s explore what constitutes a healthy microbiome. Diversity is key. Sarah Hossain MD, a gastroenterologist with CoxHealth, explains that there is a “symbiotic relationship between the bacterial flora and human gut. A more diverse flora maintains this process and maintains gut health”.   She also stresses that a lack of diverse bacteria can cause an overgrowth of one or two types of bacteria, which upsets the natural checks and balances that occur in the microscopic world.  Mutiny in the gut, if you will.

As the scientific community examines flora in humans, soil composition and its bacterial make-up have come to the awareness of the public as well. Recently it has been well documented that soil bacteria affect the human microbiome. Think “you are what you eat”, except in a bacterial sense as plants and mammals share much of the same bacteria. Robert Kremer Ph.D., professor of soil microbiology at the University of Missouri, says that crop management can have an effect on our microbiome because intensive agriculture can reduce soil microbiome function, which might lead to poorer quality of the harvested food. Some food that is ingested may have a microbiome that is also ingested and most often these are beneficial bacteria that can act as probiotics in the gut.  

In general, plant diversity equals soil bacteria diversity.  Dr. Kremer explains that rotating crops, like adding in clover, hemp, or sorghum in the off-growing season improves the soil microbiome diversity, helps maintain soil health, and “many other soil properties would improve considerably”. Researchers have found that a diverse soil environment with living microbiota positively impacts gut flora.

Aside from the conservation and preservation of land, the health of the soil can have a direct impact on the health of humans. Dr. Hossain says that the gut microbiome can influence satiety (how satisfied you feel after eating), appetite, and insulin activity.  She points out that our diets have changed to include many more preservatives.  Then, bacteria in our digestive system metabolize these chemicals.  Since these chemicals are relatively new, we don’t have a good grasp of the effects of the noxious byproducts that occur after our microbiome processes them.

Bacteria-Disease Link

We all know that in this medically advanced era certain bacteria can cause illness.  In the gut though, bacteria that are in the wrong amounts, in the wrong ratios, and in the wrong places can cause disease. And the consequences of having out-of-whack bacteria aren’t limited to the gastrointestinal system. Poor gut flora has been implicated in insulin resistance, inflammatory bowel diseases, eczema, autoimmune arthritis, diabetes, arterial stiffness, and celiac disease says Dr. Hossain.  Despite ongoing research, there is much to be discovered when it comes to the interconnectedness of our anatomical systems.

One of the most acute consequences of a poor gut microbiome is an infection of Clostridium difficile or C. diff. C. diff is transmittable from person to person, though it is most likely caused by longer uses of antibiotics that affect the “good” gut bacteria. C. diff can cause damage to the intestines and may be difficult to treat. One of the more effective treatments is a transplant of healthy gut bacteria from a donor with healthy bacteria to a recipient. It is often a lifesaver, literally. Currently, the treatment of C. diff is the only FDA-approved use of this type of transplant, but it is under investigation for use in insulin resistance and transplantation from lean donors into overweight recipients as a treatment for obesity.  

 Healthy Gut Habits

Believe it- a healthy gut microbiome is mostly in your control.  Here are some habits to practice for intestinal- and general- health. Eat local: Get familiar with your local farmers and their practices. Dr. Kremer says that management involved with growing vegetables, such as adding organic matter (like compost) will build soil biology and soil health. Check out your farmers’ market or do an internet search for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Eat the rainbow: Consume a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Exercise:  Studies on athletes have shown that exercise has a positive impact on intestinal biodiversity, Dr. Hossain says. Limit alcohol and highly processed foods. Educate yourself on the appropriate use of antibiotics. For example, viral infections will not respond to antibiotics and the use of them when not indicated can cause other issues.

You won’t be able to change every habit all at once, but doing what you can makes a positive impact. It’s better to make a few changes at a time, rather than getting frustrated because you can’t be perfect and then wind up doing nothing.  Keep in mind that by taking care of your gut health, you are attending to your entire well-being.

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