How Our Microbiome Affects Overall Health

Recently, an infection left me with no choice but to take a powerful antibiotic for several days. I am a person who avoids antibiotics when at all possible. I know they are often over-prescribed for such illnesses as colds or the flu, which are viruses and therefore unaffected by antibiotics. I also know that antibiotics work to destroy the bacteria in our body, and they don’t discriminate between good and bad bacteria. However, there are times when a bacterial infection makes antibiotics necessary. This got me to thinking about the bacteria in our body and how it affects our overall health.

Most of the bacteria we have in our bodies live in our gut. This is called our “microbiome.” We get our gut microbiome from our mothers at birth, and after that our diets and lifestyles influence the health of this microbiome. Fortunately, most of the bacteria in our gut is good for us. When our gut microbiome is healthy, the good bacteria keeps the bad bacteria in check. Unfortunately, a course of antibiotics and certain diet and lifestyle choices can throw this gut microbiome out of balance.

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There are several consequences of having an imbalanced gut microbiome. Your digestive system may react by having Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or irritable bowel syndrome. Less severe digestive issues may include heartburn, bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation. Bad bacteria has also been linked to higher cholesterol, which can cause heart disease. Studies have shown that the balance of bacteria in the gut may affect your emotions and the way your brain processes information from your senses, like light, sound, flavors, or textures. Changes in microbiome balance may play a role in diseases like autism disorder, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. An unhealthy gut imbalance may also contribute to obesity, making you feel hungry even when you’ve had enough to eat.

Fortunately, an imbalanced gut microbiome can be restored to its original healthy balance. First of all, lay off all the antibacterial products. Antibacterial soaps and gels kill as many good bacteria as bad. If you visit a doctor for an illness, don’t ask for or accept a prescription for antibiotics if the illness isn’t bacterial. Remember, viruses can’t be cured by antibiotics. Surprisingly, getting enough sleep and lowering stress levels can also help our good bacteria flourish.

A very important step in achieving and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is to pay attention to your diet. Bad bacteria love foods with a high sugar content, so stay away from those. Probiotics are good bacteria found in supplements and in food, and may be the best way to boost the levels of good bacteria in our guts. There are several types of probiotics, and each can be found in a different kind of food. Any kind of dairy that has live cultures of bacteria (like yogurt or aged cheese) can be helpful. The ingredients list should tell you if it contains live cultures. Probiotics are also found in fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles, and pickled vegetables. To help those important probiotics flourish, add some prebiotics to your diets also. Prebiotics feed probiotics and give them an environment in which to thrive. Prebiotics can be found in high fiber foods such as whole wheat breads, and in most fruits and vegetables (especially bananas, onions, garlic, asparagus, and artichokes). Probiotics and prebiotics are also available in supplement form.

Do yourself a big favor, and start taking care of that all-important gut microbiome. You may be surprised at the many health benefits. Plus, you get to eat lots of pickles! That’s a big plus, in my book.