You may have heard about gut health, microbes, and other related terms. What does it all mean, and can you really eat your way to a healthier digestive system? Here’s a quick primer on the human microbiome, plus information on diet choices believed to promote gut health.
“Micro” means small and “biome” means a habitat of living things. A microbiome is simply the entire collection of genes of all the microbes within a community.
We humans are essentially walking ecosystems. That’s because we carry a tremendous amount of microscopic life forms inside of us. Our bodies and guts contain microbes from all these categories:
Don’t worry about the specifics. You’re here to learn about maintaining a healthy gut. Understanding the exact genetic science behind microbes and microbiomes isn’t required to reach that goal.
There’s a reason the old saying “you are what you eat” exists. Poor gut health can irritate autoimmune diseases. It can exasperate issues like dementia and heart disease. Poor gut health can also make everyday living more uncomfortable, since you simply won’t feel great.
As National Public Radio (NPR) points out, microbiome research is still a relatively new field. We still have a lot to learn and discover before sweeping generalizations can be made. According to microbiome researcher Rob Knight, "We know quite a lot about associations between food and health, we know a bunch of associations between food and microbes, and we know a bunch about associations between microbes and health."
We don’t know how to put the whole picture together, though. For example, we don’t know whether some foods have a positive impact on our microbiomes and healthy gut bacteria or our metabolism.
However, there are some general gut health guidelines we would do well to follow.
The bacteria in your gut thrive when you fuel your body with certain foods. Foods that are high in fiber are great for your gut, because dietary fiber is a main food source for many of the types of bacteria that live in our guts.
That means you should fill your plate with veggies and fiber-rich foods because it never hurts. This includes foods that you might not realize contain fiber, like garlic. Some studies even show that garlic can help promote good bacteria while hurting bad bacteria.
Don’t forget about your probiotics, either. Foods high in probiotics include fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt. Researchers aren’t quite sure why these foods seem to have a positive impact on our microbiome, but they do seem to help.