By Ernest Castro, M.D.
Denver West Family Practice & Internal Medicine
You might be shocked to learn that there are trillions of microorganisms known as the gut microbiome that live in your intestine. Even more surprising is how important the microbiome is to our health.
An abnormal microbiome plays a role in many gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal disorders. The microbiome can influence our health through its impact on blood sugar, energy metabolism, and by regulation of immune function, inflammation, appetite and the nervous system. Numerous factors can influence our microbiome including our diet, antibiotics, where we live, and various lifestyle factors such as sleep, exercise and stress.
Probiotics and prebiotics are foods and supplements that can cause changes in the microbiome. A probiotic is a supplement that contains live microorganisms. Studies on probiotics for a range of gastrointestinal disorders have been done but have important limitations so it is difficult to make strong recommendations. Fortunately, probiotics are fairly safe and a trial of a probiotic is a reasonable intervention for conditions such as IBS, constipation, and post infectious diarrhea.
Prebiotics are generally dietary fibers. They are not digested by humans, but through a process called fermentation beneficial bacterial colonies feed on these substances. Like probiotics, prebiotics are generally safe with few side effects. Healthy adults can safely add these foods and products to their diets.
How to promote a healthy gut microbiome
While we are just beginning to understand the microbiome, here are some common sense recommendations to promote a healthy gut microbiome.
- Consume a healthy diet. Eat a diet high in fiber-rich foods, like fruits, and vegetables. A “western” diet that’s high in fat and sugar and low in fiber can negatively influence the gut microbiome. If you are looking for a healthy diet plan, the Mediterranean diet or a whole foods plant-based diet are good places to start. Eating a healthy diet will go a long way toward consuming adequate prebiotic fiber. Try to shoot for 25-35grams of dietary fiber per day.
- Avoid unnecessary antibiotics. Antibiotics can wipe out healthy bacteria along with bad bacteria, so take only when necessary as determined by your doctor. It can take months for the microbiome to recover after a single course of antibiotics.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise reduces inflammation, which can lead to positive changes in the microbiome.
- Ensure adequate sleep. Sleep can help support a healthy microbiome.
- Reduce stress. Stress negatively influences microbial composition.
In the coming years, we will learn more about the gut microbiome and how it influences our health. Until then, work with your doctor to incorporate the above suggestions.