Over the last decade, we have finally acknowledged the importance of our gut microbiome.

The term “microbiome” refers to the friendly bacteria that live in and on your body. Nearly 9,000 research papers have been published over the last decade alone on clinical studies related to this intestinal microbiome. There are trillions of microbes living in your gut. Not only do these microbes outnumber the cells in your body (approx. 10 microbes to 1 human cell), they have 150 times more DNA and genetic diversity too.

We now know that your gut microbes influence:

  • Gastro-intestinal symptoms. If your gut microbes are out of balance, you can suffer from abdominal pain, bloating and excessive gas production.
  • Gut microbiome imbalances are the #1 source of systemic inflammation. Not only do high inflammation levels make your joints and tendons ache, they also increase your risk for arterial plaque growth, heart attack, stroke, and even memory loss.
  • The gut microbiome, with its active environment of bacteria, viruses and yeasts, has a major impact on whether we succeed or not with weight control. Your gut microbes influence:
    • How we metabolize the calories we consume—including how many calories are absorbed from the gut.
    • Our appetite and cravings, as some undesirable bacteria produce compounds that stimulate cravings for sugar.
    • Our basal metabolic rate (our calorie-burning rate at rest), which impacts how many calories we burn when sitting in a chair.
  • Cholesterol Profiles. Modifying bile acid levels in your gut can lower cholesterol, and these levels are influenced by gut microbiota.
  • Blood Pressure. Good bacteria can keep blood pressure in check (and bad microbes will do just the opposite).
  • Elevated Blood Sugar. Harmful microbes can cause a biochemical reaction that ultimately leads to insulin resistance, a major driver of cardiovascular disease

The reality is that nearly every aspect of your health is influenced by your gut microbiome. Until recently, the gut microbiome has been a missing risk factor for heart disease.

How do you support your gut microbiome?

The two most important steps you need to take to protect your gut microbiome and your health, are to eat fiber, and have a regular intake of probiotic microbes. Fiber is the food source that nourishes your microbes. If you don’t eat enough fiber, they literally starve. You also need to eat live probiotic foods to maintain a balanced, healthy gut microbiome.

Good sources of prebiotic foods include: Chicory root, greens, artichokes, jicama, garlic, onions, asparagus, oats, apples, beans, and cocoa.

Good sources of probiotic foods include: Yogurt, Kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha, aged, raw cheese, and apple cider vinegar.

Ideally, you should be eating at least 2-3 servings of these foods every day. If that isn’t realistic, then consider taking a probiotic supplement to help support your gut. You typically need at least 15-30 billion microbes per dose for several months to make a positive difference for your gut microbiome. Probiotic supplement products that I recommend in my office include ProbioMed 50 and Probiotic Supreme (both produced by Designs for Health), or Therbiotic Complete (produced by Klaire Labs).

What can hurt your gut microbiome?

There are several factors that adversely impact your gut microbiome.

Perhaps the most powerful adverse impact comes from using antibiotics. A single course of antibiotics can hurt your gut microbiome for months and even years. So don’t take antibiotics for a common cold and always ask your physician if the antibiotics you are considering are necessary or if they could be safely avoided? If you do have a life-threatening infection, such as pneumonia, then clearly you want to be treated as soon as possible. The good news is that you can support your gut microbiome during and after a course of antibiotics by: eating prebiotic, fiber-rich foods, eating probiotic foods, and taking a probiotic supplement to help boost your gut microbes back into balance.

Food allergies can also cause gut inflammation, leaky gut syndrome, and lead to bad bacterial overgrowth. If you have a food sensitivity to a specific food, then avoid that food entirely. This is especially true with gluten.

Some sweeteners also injure the gut microbiome. As an example, Splenda (sucralose), a chlorinated form of sugar that is common in prepared foods, can decimate healthy gut microbes. I recommend that you avoid products that contain Splenda.

Having a healthy gut microbiome is essential if you hope to enjoy optimal health long term. By adding the foods you need, and avoiding the factors that hurt gut microbes, you can make a dramatic difference in how you feel and how you live. So take active steps to support your own gut microbiome.

I wish you the best of health!

Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS