Within the digestive system, an intricate and diverse community of microorganisms coexist in a delicate balance. The relationship between these intestinal flora and human health has been studied for many years, but it’s only been in the last decade or so that researchers have truly begun to unlock some of its mysteries. Some of these studies have unveiled the crucial role these microorganisms play in influencing various aspects of our health and wellbeing that extend well beyond digestion. Understanding this connection can offer valuable insights into how to maintain the healthy diversity of one’s microbiome.
What is Intestinal Flora and What Does it Do?
Intestinal flora is a term used to refer to the trillions of microbes that reside in the mucosal walls of the digestive tract. This intricate ecosystem, also known as gut microbiota or the gut microbiome, is composed of beneficial bacteria that live in a symbiotic relationship with the body. Rather than just hitching a free ride in our bowels, however, these intestinal bacteria actually play a number of important roles in the ongoing function of the human body. Below are some of the functions that researchers have identified to date:
- Digestion: One of the most prominent roles of human gut microbiota is related to the digestive process. The gut microbiome assists in the digestion of complex carbohydrates, fiber, and certain other compounds that human digestive enzymes aren’t able to break down. The microbes produce the necessary enzymes that can release nutrients and short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that the body can absorb and utilize for energy.
- Immune system support: Our gut flora also play a key role in supporting a healthy immune system. Part of this support comes from the fact that the beneficial bacteria inhabit the same space in the gastrointestinal tract as potentially harmful pathogens—but by successfully competing for the same nutrients, a healthy microbiome essentially crowds out the pathogens.
- Gut barrier protection: Another way the microbiome supports the immune system is by reinforcing the gut barrier function. Intestinal flora contributes to the maintenance of a healthy gut barrier, which serves as a selective barrier between the intestines and the bloodstream. When functioning properly, this barrier prevents the passage of harmful substances while allowing the absorption of essential nutrients.
- Metabolism: Some newer research suggests that the composition of the gut microbiome may influence both metabolism and weight regulation. The evidence so far shows that imbalances in the makeup of the microbiome may be problematic and can lead to metabolic disorders or obesity. Conversely, by maintaining a healthy balance, your metabolism may function more efficiently and help with weight management goals.
- Mental health: There have also been studies that suggest a connection between gut health and mental health via the gut-brain axis, which is the collection of pathways between the central nervous system and enteric nervous system. This connection may influence both cognitive function and mood, and, consequently, managing gut health may be an important tool for treating conditions like depression and anxiety.
Each person’s microbiome is slightly different, and the number and kind of bacteria involved can also vary greatly from person to person. However, most intestinal microflora found in the small and large intestines belong to a few genera: Bifidobacteria, Clostridium, Lactobacillus, and Bacteroides. The composition of intestinal flora can be influenced by various factors, including diet, lifestyle, use of antibiotics, and overall health status. A balanced and diverse gut microbiome is generally associated with better health outcomes, while imbalances or disruptions in gut flora may be linked to gastrointestinal disorders, immune-related conditions, and other health issues.
How Do Gut Health Problems Affect Overall Health?
A consistent theme from the recent research on intestinal flora is that poor gut health can have far-reaching effects on overall health precisely because of the versatility of function. When the balance and diversity of the gut microbiome are disrupted or compromised, it can lead to a range of health issues and contribute to the development of various diseases. Below are some common ways that poor gut health can affect overall health:
- Digestive disorders: Imbalances in the composition of gut microbiome (dysbiosis) can increase the risk of digestive symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. Moreover, conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease (most notably Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis).
- Immune system problems: Because the gut microbiome interacts so closely with the immune system, problems with gut flora can lead to a weakened immune response that in turn makes the body more susceptible to infections and immune-related conditions.
- Inflammation: Poor gut health has also been linked to chronic low-grade inflammation, which can contribute to various chronic diseases.
- Mental health: As noted above, research has identified a connection between mental health and gut health; just as good gut health can improve cognition and mental health, disruptions to the balance may contribute to mood disorders, anxiety, depression, or reduced cognitive function.
- Obesity and metabolic disorders: More research needs to be done on the link between weight gain and gut health, but research to date suggests that poor gut health can negatively impact metabolism. This can also lead to weight gain, insulin resistance, and the development of metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes.
- Nutrient deficiencies: Because human intestinal microbiota reside all along the lining of the digestive tract, an imbalance can also potentially negatively impact nutrient absorption in the small intestine. This can then lead to deficiencies in certain essential nutrients that the body uses for normal functions.
How Do I Improve Gut Health?
Taking steps to increase the health and diversity of your microbiome can be an important step toward improving many aspects of health. While there do appear to be some genetic factors that can contribute to poor gut health, there are also a variety of lifestyle factors that can reverse the trend and lead to better health outcomes. Below are some ways gut health can be improved depending on how severe the problems are:
- Diverse diet: Consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds provides a broad range of nutrients and dietary fiber that support the growth of different beneficial gut bacteria.
- Fermented foods: The process of fermentation involves microbes converting carbohydrates into compounds like alcohol or organic acids. This process has beneficial effects on digestion and can improve bowel motility. Examples of fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh.
- Probiotics and prebiotics: Probiotics and prebiotics are substances that support the health of the microbiome; probiotics include live microorganisms that can add to the microbiome while prebiotics are substances that those microorganisms can actually feed on. While probiotic supplements are available and may be helpful, most doctors agree that probiotics from foods (like fermented items) are preferable.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water also supports proper digestion and maintains optimal gut function.
- Reduce stress: Research has shown that chronic stress can negatively affect gut health, so it may be beneficial to practice stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or spending time in nature.
- Fecal transplant: In rare cases, where the microbiome is in a sufficiently unhealthy state, lifestyle changes may not be enough to improve the situation. One method that can be used is fecal transplantation; in this procedure, feces from a donor with a diverse community of gut bacteria is transplanted to another person’s colon in order to incorporate the healthy bacteria.
Contact Cary Gastroenterology Today
The connection between gut health and the microbiome is an area of emerging research, but the evidence to date shows that the two are closely linked. If you have been experiencing digestive symptoms that you can’t explain, it could be that poor gut health may be part of the explanation. It can be tempting to try to figure out the problem for yourself, but gastrointestinal symptoms are often shared by many conditions. If you would like to speak with a gastroenterologist about any of your symptoms, please contact us at Cary Gastro today to request an appointment.