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Gut Microbiome

Pudding with blueberries

Your gut microbiome is all of the little microbes that line the wall of your gut. They play a large role in your overall health. Your microbiome helps to regulate your body weight, as they decide how much energy your body extracts from the food you eat. The microbiome protects your gut from foreign invaders, and also regulates your immune system, impacting things such as the amount of coughs and colds you get, as well as whether or not you have any allergies or autoimmune diseases. They also take the bits of food that our body can’t digest and converts it into hormones and other chemicals. As you can see, your gut microbiome is extremely important and powerful. This article will educate you more about what your microbiome is made up of, and how you can look after it. 

Your microbiome is essentially made up of good and bad microbes. Most of the microbes are symbiotic (where both your body and the microbiota benefit), but there are also some that are pathogenic (disease promoting). In a healthy body pathogenic microbes are in much smaller numbers, and symbiotic and pathogenic microbiota can coexist without any issues. However if there is any disturbance to that balance, something called dysbiosis occurs, which stops the normal interactions of symbiotic and pathogenic microbiota, and this causes your body to become more susceptible to disease. Dysbiosis can be caused by infectious illnesses, certain diets, or the prolonged use of antibiotics. There are hundreds, or even possibly thousands of different species living in your gut, and everyone’s microbiome is made up differently.

Here is a run down of a few of the main players. 

The good guys:

  • Bacteroidetes – you want a good portion of your microbiome to be made up of bacteroidetes. Having a microbiome made up of high levels of bacteroidetes is usually associated with a lean body type and less inflammation in the gut. Bacteroidetes teach your immune system how to behave, and help control how intense your immune response is. They also break down undigested fibre from vegetables. This produces a number of valuable substances, including butyrate. 
  • Butyrate – butyrate helps to control the growth of our gut wall cells. It also has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. While inflammation isn’t inherently a bad thing, it is how the body defends itself, chronic inflammation can cause a number of issues. In the gut chronic inflammation can look like pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and in serious cases can even lead to bowel cancer. By controlling the growth of the gut wall cells, and by decreasing inflammation, butyrate actively protects us against bowel cancer. It also helps to maintain your gut lining, which is the barrier that protects bacteria and toxins from escaping into your bloodstream. If this gut wall lining starts to break down it can lead to a condition known as leaky gut syndrome, which can lead to all sorts of further issues, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome. One way to boost your levels of butyrate is to eat lots of fibre. 
  • Firmicutes – firmicutes main role is to help digest fat and extract the energy from it. While this is an important role, you don’t want your levels of firmicutes to be too high, as this has been linked to a higher risk of obesity. People who live on a typical western diet (lots of fat and sugar) tend to have higher levels of firmicutes. 
  • Akkermansia – akkermansia live on the mucus that your gut wall secretes to protect itself against foreign invaders. They help to strengthen the gut wall and reduce inflammation. The more akkermansia you have, the better. You can help boost your akkermansia by eating polyphenol rich foods, and by fasting. Because akkermansia live on the mucus in your gut, they thrive when you cut down your calories. Intermittent fasting can be a good way to boost akkermansia levels. 
  • Lactobacillus – lactobacillus lines your intestines and protects your gut from bad guys, such as the fungal pathogen candida albicans. Lactobacillus can be weakened by a course of antibiotics, which can give things like candida albicans a chance to take over in your gut, and this can be hard to undo. It is also thought that some strains of lactobacillus are important for mental health, and that taking it in the form of a probiotic can help improve anxiety and mood. 

The bad guys:

  • Campylobacter – this is the most common cause of food poisoning. Campylobacter is quite vicious and causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, severe diarrhoea (sometimes with blood), and vomiting. It can lead to IBS and arthritis, and can cause pregnant women to miscarry. This is usually picked up from handling raw chicken, or eating undercooked chicken. 
  • E. coli – E. coli can cause bloody diarrhoea leading to anaemia, and even kidney failure. They can also cause urinary tract infections. E. coli infections come from eating infected meat that has not been properly cooked, or from drinking raw milk. 
  • Salmonella – this can cause diarrhoea, stomach cramps, and vomiting. It can also lead to severe dehydration, which can be very serious if not dealt with properly, and has even lead to death in some cases. 

Ways to look after your microbiome:

  • Eating largely plant based, and eating a range of different types of plants. Don’t just stick to a few different vegetables, eat as many different types of fruits and vegetables as you can, this will help keep your microbiome nice and diverse. 
  • Having one alcoholic drink a week allows you to have a more diverse microbiome than those who don’t drink at all. 
  • Avoid antibiotics if possible. A course of broad spectrum antibiotics can take months or even years for your gut microbiome to recover from. 
  • Go outside, or if you’re inside, open a window. The diversity of microbes outside is much larger than that inside, so it is good to expose yourself to this. 
  • Get your hands dirty. Gardening is the best way to do this. It will expose you to all the different bacteria that lives in the soil, and as a bonus is a good way of getting some exercise in.