Gut Health Primer

There’s a lot of talk lately about “gut health” but what does that mean? In a nutshell, researchers are discovering that there is a whole world inside us, almost another organ, that has a huge effect on our body and mind. This is known as the microbiome and getting it in order can help you take control of everything from your weight to your mental health.


What is the microbiome?


The collection of microbes that live in and on your body are known as the microbiota. The microbiome are the genes that live inside these microbes. These genes influence how your body operates in a big way --- outnumbering human genes by an incredible ration of 100:1!


Like snowflakes, every one of us has a unique microbiota and a unique microbiome. The ones that live in your body are determined by what you are exposed to and therefore change constantly. Your geography, health, stress, diet, age, gender, every surface you touch all impact the makeup of your microbiota and therefore, your microbiome.


The microbiota is made up of a lot of microorganisms, as in trillions. Bacteria are the main substance with between 30 and 50 trillion cells. For comparison, our human bodies contain about 37 trillion human cells.


Your geography, health, stress, diet, age, gender, every surface you touch all impact the makeup of your microbiota and therefore, your microbiome.

Specifically, scientists estimate that we carry roughly three pounds of bacteria in our intestines alone. Our individual microbiome is as unique as our fingerprints and has hundreds of different types of bacteria. The exact number of bacteria changes throughout the day though and is always turning over. However, the most plentiful thing in our microbiota are good viruses. The ones in our gut are called bacteriophages, which mean they infect gut bacteria cells but don’t harm them but instead have a symbiotic relationship where the viruses transfer beneficial genes.


When new bacteria are introduced into your gut through diet or probiotics, the viral cells help the bacteria survive by transferring genetic code.


The impact of gut health on the body


Research is beginning to show how important the microbiome is to our overall health and it is so central to our operations that is essentially operating like an organ. It impacts aging, digestion, our immune system, mood, and cognitive function.


Bacteria in our guts produce enzymes that support digestion, especially the healthy and complex sugars that are found in plant foods. They also provide B vitamins, vitamin K, and short chain fatty acids. The microbiota also influences metabolic rate. Now do we have your attention? Who doesn’t want to improve their metabolic rate?

Research is beginning to show how important the microbiome is to our overall health and it is so central to our operations that is essentially operating like an organ. It impacts aging, digestion, our immune system, mood, and cognitive function.

The foundation of your immune system is a strong microbiome. When you are born, your gut is a clean slate. Exposure to microbes gives education to train the immune system on how to respond to different organisms. This is the way the immune system balances the relationship of the body and the microbes in it. Harmful organisms are taken care of and helpful organisms exist in harmony and provide good overall health.


The makeup of the mother’s vaginal microbiota changes during pregnancy and is very influential to a baby. Babies born vaginally are exposed to different bacteria than babies who are born via Caesarean section. Likewise, babies born at home have different exposures than babies born in hospitals. As the baby grows, their microbiome changes. Only about 100 microbes exist during the first few months of life. By the time they reach age 3, a child’s microbiota is closer to 1,000 species of microbes and is close to adult microbiota. Puberty has a significant impact on the change in the composition of the microbiota.


The current relevance and history of gut health


You may have only recently learned about “gut health,” but scientist have known about microorganisms for hundreds of years, beginning in 1673 when Antony van Leeuwenhoek informed the Royal Society of London about the discovery of “animalcules.” Leeuwenhoek found microbes everywhere with the help of his microscope but no one else paid attention until about 1870 when scientists realized their role in the cause and spread of disease. Before that, doctors thought that bad air caused disease. Then Robert Koch proved that tiny microorganisms were to blame and his discovery solidified that germ theory was valid – certain microbes cause specific diseases.


Folks then began to realize that cleanliness was essential for public health and started bathing daily, soap became a basic household necessity, and doctors and surgeons began washing their hands and sanitizing their instruments. That seems wild now, but before the discovery of “germs,” people just didn’t wash things and neither did doctors. In the years that followed, this scientific discovery led to public health initiatives to limit the spread of disease and save lives.


Until recently, scientists have focused on how pathogenic microbes affect humans in a negative way. Now there is the realization that some microorganisms are actually beneficial -- enter gut health. Now, for the first time in history, more attention is being given to the microbiome and its important role in overall health and immunity.

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