Definition of Gut Flora
Gut flora is defined as the collection of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract of almost all living things. There are more than 400 different types of bacteria that can live in the gut, which is why ensuring that your gut flora levels are balanced is crucial for ensuring overall health and well-being. Too much of one and/or not enough of another can result in problems such as difficulty with nutrient absorption, excessive gas and bloating, or even diarrhea or constipation.
How Gut Flora Works
Because there are so many different types of bacteria living in the gut, it’s not entirely known exactly how they all work together in the human body. However, there have been several studies into gut flora that demonstrate the impact of gut flora on the overall state of the body as well as disease states and acute illnesses. “There’s a good chance your microbiome is associated with every disease you can think of — diabetes, cancer, autism,” Michael Snyder, PhD, and director of Stanford University’s Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine tells WebMD. “And the area where bacteria have a huge impact is your gut.”
Gut bacteria have been linked to illnesses such as diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, colon cancer, and obesity. Scientists have also recognized the connection between the health of the gut and brain health for many years. This is known as the gut-brain connection. The bacteria in your gut can actually communicate messages to the brain via the nervous system, hormones, and the immune system. Researchers have found connections between intestinal bacteria and mental health conditions including autism, ADD, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among others.
Examples of Gut Flora
There are several types of gut flora, with some research finding up to 400 different types of flora in the feces of a single person. Some gut flora strains found in the human body include:
Most of the microbes in the gut are anaerobic — which means they do not require oxygen in order to survive — making the body an ideal living environment. There are few gut flora in the stomach and upper intestinal system, with the majority of a person’s gut bacteria taking up residence in the lower bowel. There are some located in the mouth, throat, and esophageal area, but these are usually involved in digestion and don’t always make it to the lower bowel.
Benefits of Flora in Your Gut
The importance of well-balanced gut flora cannot be stressed enough. A healthy level of gut flora is essential for ensuring good digestion, especially when it comes to fiber and lactose in the diet. These bacteria are necessary for breaking down food and keeping things moving through the digestive tract.
When out of balance, gut flora can also cause issues with the absorption of nutrients, resulting in deficiencies and even illnesses. They also send signals to your immune system, which can trigger immune responses like hives or increased mucous production. This can also lead to painful autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Inflammation in the body has also been linked to diseases affecting the skin, lungs, heart, and other body systems.
Healthy gut flora is also a key contributing factor in maintaining ideal levels of blood clotting agents. For instance, research shows that those with low levels of vitamin K who have recently taken antibiotics have lower clotting factors.
How to Restore Your Gut Flora
You can boost your own beneficial gut flora and improve your digestive health primarily through nutrition measures. Avoid eating a diet high in processed foods, which has been shown to contribute to a less diverse community of gut flora. Experiments on mice showed that when fed a standard American diet, the mice would become obese, as it was difficult for the good bacteria to set up shop in the digestive tract. The more you’re able to vary your diet, the more diverse and healthy your gut flora will be.
Avoid overusing antibiotics. Each time you take an antibiotic, you are wiping out critical gut flora essential for health. While this is sometimes necessary in order to get rid of an infection in the body, you’ll want to ensure you replenish these good bacteria either by consuming a probiotic supplement or probiotic-rich foods.
Increasing your intake of probiotic-rich foods is probably one of the best ways to restore your levels, and the variety, of healthy gut flora. Probiotic-rich foods include:
- Sour pickles
- Dark chocolate
- Sourdough bread
Expectant mothers may also consider breastfeeding. Research shows that formula-fed infants have gut microbes not seen in breastfed babies until solid foods are introduced. It’s thought this early introduction of certain microbes may be linked to asthma, eczema, and allergies.
By avoiding antibiotics, reducing stress levels, eating a diverse diet, and increasing your intake of probiotic-rich foods or probiotic supplements, you can help to balance and maintain a healthy gut flora.