The tiny world within

The microbiome, the collective term for the dense, interconnected bacterial community in our digestive tract, is not simply history’s most successful hitchhiker. Far from being a passive parasite, this living web is an active and dynamic player in our overall health.

The first seeds of bacterial life are sown long before birth. From that point forward, our microbiome evolves with the influences of environment, diet, medications, and even stress. Age, sex, body weight, and genetics all shape the vast biological world within us.

Why does flora matter?

Dr. Jordan Sokoloski, a naturopathic doctor, sees many patients with digestive issues. “The microbiome is so critical to digestive health overall,” he says. While our food is initially broken down by teeth, muscles, and enzymes, bacteria complete the transformation to absorbable nutrients, even adding in some self-made vitamins along the way.

The microbiome and the mind

Our guts have earned the moniker “the second brain.” Digestive disturbances exist alongside brain-related conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, and anxiety. This coexistence of digestive and neurologic concerns is not just a coincidence. Bacterial metabolites may explain this connection.

Feed the bugs (and try not to kill them)

If the microbiome is so vital to health, what can we do to protect it? Factors such as genetics and age are beyond our control, but dietary choices can modify the microbiome in as little as 24 hours. However, these shifts are quickly reversed if diet changes are not maintained.

Our flora may be as individual as our fingerprints, meaning there is no single optimal bacterial composition suitable for everyone. Much like a streetwise tomcat, a genetically unique and diverse microbiome is the most resilient. A flexible and complex digestive community is created and sustained by eating a wide variety of foods.

Sokoloski emphasizes feeding beneficial flora with inulin-containing foods such as garlic, onions, artichokes, and oats. Fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi are also nourishing for the microbiome.

It’s equally important to avoid negative influences. Limiting use of antibiotics, antacid medications, and laxatives can preserve bacterial populations. Being proactive in our efforts to reduce stress, sedentary living, and environmental exposures can prevent further harm to our precious microbial cargo.

Supplemental support

To help the gut through periods of challenge, supplemental probiotics could be considered. Although probiotic supplementation can cause measurable changes in the composition of our microbiome, these changes do not seem to be permanent.

While the strains themselves may not persist, improvements to symptoms such as bowel disruption or psoriasis may last for many months after stopping probiotics. One strategy for probiotic use may be to take them in periods of stress or medication use, or when symptoms re-emerge.

Digestive bacteria and their metabolites communicate with every system in our bodies, influencing and even directing the workings of our cellular processes. This interplay of flora and function may lead to new insights and creative options for optimizing our health.

By Dr. Gillian Flower, ND