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Microbiome: Looking into our gut garden

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A balanced microbiome refers to the presence of a diverse community of microorganisms that live in and on the human body in a harmonious and stable state. A healthy microbiome is critical for maintaining the overall health of an individual, as it plays a crucial role in several physiological processes, including digestion, metabolism, immune system regulation, and mental health.

A balanced microbiome has an adequate abundance and diversity of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that help keep harmful pathogens in check. This balance can be disrupted by factors such as antibiotic use, a poor diet, stress, and other environmental factors, leading to dysbiosis and various health problems.

“Our gut bacteria serves as a filter for our largest environmental exposure – the food we eat,” explains Dr. Stanley Hazen, the Chair of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Section Head of Preventive Cardiology and Rehab at Cleveland Clinic.

Maintaining a balanced microbiome can be achieved through a healthy diet rich in fibre and prebiotics, regular exercise, reducing stress, and avoiding unnecessary antibiotic use. Probiotic supplements and fermented foods may also help promote a healthy microbiome.

Gut bacteria begin to colonise in our bodies shortly after birth, during and after delivery, and there is new evidence suggesting that this process may even begin in utero. The infant’s gut is initially sterile, but during the birth process, the baby is exposed to a wide variety of microorganisms, primarily from the mother’s birth canal and skin. These microbes then begin to colonise the baby’s gut, and over time, the gut microbiome becomes more diverse and stable.

Breastfeeding also plays a crucial role in the establishment and maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome. Breast milk contains prebiotics, which promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the infant’s gut.

However, the gut microbiome is not static and can be influenced by several factors, including diet, antibiotic use, and other environmental factors. As we age, our gut microbiome continues to evolve, and changes in composition. This change of diversity is associated with several health conditions, including obesity, autoimmune disorders, and mental health issues.

It’s difficult to provide an exact ratio of good, neutral, and bad bacteria in the gut as the composition of the gut microbiome can vary widely from person to person based on several factors, such as diet, lifestyle, genetics, and environment. Similar to a person’s own fingerprint, there’s a huge variety – types and proportions – of gut bacteria. However, It is estimated that a healthy person has a ratio of approximately 80-85 per cent good and neutral bacteria and 15-20 per cent of bad bacteria.

These ratios, however, can reverse due to a variety of reasons including unhealthy eating, ageing and poor digestion. Researchers are only beginning to understand how the differences in gut bacteria can affect everything from the way we metabolise certain foods to impact on the body’s immune system.

The Good
In the average healthy individual, the majority of bacteria present in the gut are considered “good” or beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, which play essential roles in digestion, immune system regulation, and overall health. These beneficial bacteria help to maintain the integrity of the gut barrier, produce vitamins and short-chain fatty acids, and protect against pathogenic bacteria.

The Bad
The presence of “bad” bacteria, such as opportunistic pathogens or harmful bacteria, in the gut is generally considered abnormal and can lead to dysbiosis and health issues. Interestingly however, it’s worth noting that some potentially harmful bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, are normally present in the gut in low levels and can be beneficial under certain circumstances.

And The Ugly
…well ok, not ugly, just Neutral. Which are microorganisms that do not have any known positive or negative effects on health. These bacteria are part of the normal microbial community that resides in the human gut, but they do not actively contribute to the digestion or metabolism of food like some beneficial bacteria.

While the exact role of neutral bacteria in the gut is not fully understood, it is believed that they play a critical role in maintaining the balance and stability of the gut microbiome. Neutral bacteria may compete with pathogenic bacteria for resources and help prevent harmful bacterial overgrowth in the gut.

What about Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are a type of fibre that are not digested by the human body but instead serve as food for the beneficial bacteria in our gut. These beneficial bacteria ferment prebiotic fibres and produce short-chain fatty acids, which have several health benefits, including maintaining the integrity of the gut barrier, reducing inflammation, and promoting satiety.

A large number of human intervention studies have shown that probiotics improve the composition and diversity of the gut microbiome, which is essential for maintaining overall health.

Studies have also shown that prebiotics can improve digestion, reduce the risk of certain diseases, including colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes, and enhance immune function. Prebiotics have also been shown to have positive effects on mental health, including reducing anxiety and depression symptoms.

Jeerusalem Artichokes

Prebiotic foods that create healthy gut flora include:

  • Tempeh, Miso, Natto: Aids in digestion, boosts nutrient absorption, trumps unhealthy bacteria
  • Plain plant-based yogurt
  • Cruciferous Vegetables (such as broccoli): Packed with glucosinolates that can fight against inflammation and cancer
  • Kimchi and Sauerkraut: Improves the health of intestinal walls, boosts immune system
  • Beans: Release short-chain fatty acids and boosts vitamin absorption, improves satiety
  • Jerusalem Artichokes (pictured above): Rich in inulin fiber

The Microbiome is an emerging field of research and we are only at the beginning of discovering the impact the gut flora has on our health. Overall, a healthy gut microbiome is characterised by a diverse and stable microbial community dominated by beneficial bacteria, which help maintain overall health and well-being. Continued research will reveal more about the vastness of our microbiota. In the meantime, following a plant-based approach continues to show promise for our heart and gut health.

Whole Food Living reviews and selects material from a wide variety of international sources. Our primary focus covers food, health and environment. We publish fact checked official announcements made as the result of formal studies conducted by Universities, respected health care organisations, journals, and scientists around the globe.

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