Question: I hear about gut health and the microbiome. Can you explain what it is and how it impacts health?
The microbiome is the collective name for all the bacteria and microorganisms living in your body. They live all over our body; however, a big concentration resides in our gut. Some types of bacteria can be harmful, but there are many that actually protect you and benefit your health. They help us to breakdown food, program our immune system, and even prevent certain diseases.
When we improve the health of our microbiome, it positively affects the rest of our body including the health of our gut, our brain, and potentially may aid in losing weight. Within the past decade, modern science has just begun to discover all the ways that a healthy gut microbiome can influence many different areas of our health, including your weight, digestive, and mental health.
- Weight loss: Research has shown that imbalances between unhealthy and healthy bacteria cause a type of inflammation that may make the body more prone to weight gain and insulin resistance (1).
- Digestive Health: A healthy digestive system needs a healthy balance of “good” bacteria compared to “bad” bacteria. When these two are imbalanced, bloating, cramps, and abdominal pain are more likely to occur; symptoms that are associated with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease (2,3).
- Mental Health: Mind-gut connection has been long recognized by traditional eastern practices, and modern science has just begun to explore this within the past decade. Research has shown that the gut and brain closely communicate and the health of the microbiome can influence brain function and mental health (4).
The amount, type, and variety of healthy bacteria is attributed to our diet, genetics, and our early microbial exposure. Since we can’t change the latter two, diet plays an important role in improving our gut microbiome, and furthermore our overall health. There are three primary ways to improve and support a healthy microbiome.
- Eat fermented foods. You’ve probably heard the buzzword “probiotics” within the past few years. Probiotics are foods that contain strains of healthy gut bacteria that will help to increase the population and diversity of the microbiome. Foods containing probiotics include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, kombucha, kimchi, and tempeh. If you don’t usually eat these, try implementing Greek yogurt as a snack or miso soup as a warm winter go-to.
- Eat foods that are high in fiber. A certain kind of dietary fiber called prebiotics is beneficial to the gut because they feed the good bacteria of the microbiome. Foods containing prebiotics include onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas, apples, and oats. However, eating a diet with a variety of fiber-rich foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes will help promote good digestive health as well as feeding your microbiome.
- Ask your doctor, pharmacist or dietitian about taking a probiotics supplement. An easy way to ensure you are getting enough probiotics each day is to take a probiotics supplement. Many supplements contain a variety of different bacteria strains to promote diversity. Always consult your health care provider before starting a supplement and for help in selecting one.
The bottom line is that eating more foods that contain probiotics and fiber offers a wide range of health benefits no matter what your health goal is. It’s important to keep in mind that doing this is just one piece of a healthy lifestyle, along with an overall healthy diet, regular physical activity, sufficient sleep, and manageable stress.
Marlee Shepherd, RD
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Registered Dietitian at:
American Family Fitness Midlothian
American Family Fitness Swift Creek
Marlee Shepherd is the Registered Dietitian at the Midlothian and Swift Creek American Family Fitness locations. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from James Madison University. Marlee completed her dietetic internship with Virginia State University and gained her Registered Dietitian credentials in 2019.
During her internship, Marlee enjoyed all aspects of nutrition, especially nutrition counseling because it helps people gain confidence in their food choices and develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Marlee finds it exciting to be part of the growing and ever-changing nutrition field, and she loves staying current by reading the latest nutrition research and fads. Her areas of specialty include intuitive eating, diabetes, weight loss, and plant-based diets.
When Marlee is not working, she enjoys hiking around the James River, trying new recipes, reading, and travel. She’s lived in Australia and has a passion for Spain. She plans one day to head to Tokyo.
Nutrition appointments with Marlee are available at the American Family Fitness Midlothian and Swift Creek locations. To schedule an appointment, stop by the Welcome desk or email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is looking forward to working with you!
- 016 May;92(1087):286-300. doi: 10.1136/postgradmedj-2015-133285. Epub 2016 Feb 24.
- Distrutti E, Monaldi L, Ricci P, Fiorucci S. Gut microbiota role in irritable bowel syndrome: New therapeutic strategies. World J Gastroenterol. 2016;22(7):2219–2241. doi:10.3748/wjg.v22.i7.2219
- Halfvarson J, Brislawn CJ, Lamendella R, et al. Dynamics of the human gut microbiome in inflammatory bowel disease. Nat Microbiol. 2017;2:17004. Published 2017 Feb 13. doi:10.1038/nmicrobiol.2017.4
- Cryan, J., Dinan, T. Mind-altering microorganisms: the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behaviour. Nat Rev Neurosci 13, 701–712 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3346
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