By Anne-Marie Chalmers, MD
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the microbiome — you know, the 1.5 kg community of microbes living in and on you. The microbiome is currently a hot health topic, receiving plenty of attention for its role in regulating disease. Let’s tackle some basics of this fascinating frontier in science.
What Is the Microbiome?
The microbiome refers to the trillions of bacteria that live in or on our bodies, including all of their genes. Located primarily in the gut, these microbes have at least 150 times more genes than we do. These genes collaborate with our own in running our bodies. Plus, they provide us with a greater genetic diversity important to the survival of the human species.
The gut microbes help us in many ways. They break down the leftovers after the stomach and small intestine have done their job, converting the remains into energy. They also feed the cells lining the colon, manufacture vitamins and other nutrients, break down toxins, and train our immune system. In other words, they are critical to a well-functioning body and a healthy immune response.
Why Does Microbial Health Matter?
A healthy microbiome is characterized by two key traits: Having a variety of bacteria and the right kinds of bacteria.
The problem is, we as a society are disrupting the balance of the microbiome. We wash our hands with disinfectants and swallow antibiotics when we have a cold; social and economic policies discourage women from breastfeeding; and to top it all off, we overload our bodies with fast foods high in bad fats, simple sugars and low levels of dietary fiber.
All of these factors contribute to dismantling the diversity and healthy types of microbes in our gut. And research shows that these microbial imbalances are linked with diseases like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, autoimmune disease, colon cancer, autism, allergies, mood disorders, and more.
Foods that Promote Microbial Health
Our microbiome can wander astray when we fail to feed it the right kinds of foods. Saturated fats feed inflammation-creating bacteria, as do sugars and other ingredients used in processed foods.
Dietary fibers, on the other hand, provide nourishment for healthier bacteria and support a more varied microbial community. Getting on a high-
fiber diet — including oats, barley, and lentils — provides a variety of excellent plant carbohydrates. These foods in turn provide the raw material for bacterial fermentation. In addition, when you eat more fiber, the gut bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids, which feed the cells lining your gut.
How Omega-3 Impacts Gut Bacteria
Along with dietary fibers, other types of nutrients are also beneficial, including omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have found that higher intakes of omega-3s are linked with greater microbial diversity, independent of dietary fiber intake. In addition, omega-3s seem to support the Lachnospiraceae bacterial family, which may help protect against colon cancer.
Omega-3s are beneficial for gut health in other ways too. Researchers have found that omega-3s help increase the production of short-chain fatty acids. And animal studies indicate that omega-3s help maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall and interact with host immune cells.
Interestingly, how you go about increasing your omega-3 intake may influence the benefits you receive. For instance, in one study, researchers compared the effects of supplementing patients with 4000 mg of EPA/DHA omega-3 either via capsules or a functional food drink. The researchers found that the functional food drink had a greater impact on the gut microbes, increasing the prevalence of two important, health-promoting bacterial strains. This research could in part explain why increasing omega-3 intake via fish oil capsules is often found to be less effective than liquid fish oils or eating fish.
Other Factors that Influence Gut Health
Keeping your microbiome healthy is not just about diet. Other factors, such as age, genetics, environment, antibiotic use, and lifestyle, play a significant role too.
While many of these factors are outside of our control, diet is something that we can make smart decisions about every day. Whatever you choose to eat, keep it wholesome and fiber-rich. Your bacteria will thank you for it.
About Dr. Anne-Marie Chalmers
Born and raised in the United States, Dr. Chalmers graduated from Brown University and completed her medical training at the University of Oslo in Norway. Dr. Chalmers practiced emergency, family, and preventive medicine in Norway for many years. Today, she serves as the president of Omega3 Innovations.
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