One of the ways you can ensure you stay healthy and bring longevity to your career is by maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.
There are about 100 trillion microbes living in and out of our body. Most of them live in our gut microbiome, which is made up of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and even viruses. It is this microbial ecosystem in our intestines that regulates not only our digestion but also our immune, nervous and endocrine systems.
“Having a balanced gut is essential to having a balanced mood, and balanced emotional and mental health,” says Sandi Miller, health coach of Rock the Biome.
Our gut microbes help with digestion, they support a strong immune system and they protect us against pathogens. Some vitamins, including vitamin B12, thiamine, riboflavin and vitamin K, are also produced in the gut by these beneficial bacteria.
The entire microbial system, which is made up of about 1,000 species of microbes, can weigh up to five pounds, according to the University of Washington Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health.
“Gut health can influence every part of your body. It is not isolated to your gut. If you have an imbalance in the bacteria in your gut, it is not just affecting you in that you may have gas or constipation or something else. It ends up affecting your entire body,” says Jo Panyko, author of “Probiotics for Health” and probiotic educator behind the site powerofprobiotics.com.
The microbiome creates a thick layer of mucus composed of microscopic life forms and their metabolites that serve to keep pathogens and toxins from penetrating the intestinal lining.
A leaky gut is when there is permeability in the intestinal lining and these pathogens and toxins make their way into the bloodstream through microscopic openings in the intestinal wall. This can wreak havoc on our health and impact our mental and emotional health through what is known as the gut-brain connection.
The Gut is the Second Brain
Our brain is part of our central nervous system and our gut is part of the enteric nervous system.
The gut is often referred to as the second brain because the nerves in the gut control digestion independently from the brain. When we are stressed or anxious, our brain sends a signal to the gut and that can cause the sensation of butterflies in our stomach. When our gut is stressed, it will send a signal to the brain to release different hormones.
“Stress in the gut will cause stress in the brain; stress in the brain will cause stress in the gut. They work hand in hand,” says health and wellness coach Bernadette Rabel of Gut Instinct Health Coach.
A stressful environment can cause your body to react by releasing hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine. These hormones kill the good bacteria, shifting the balance to favor the bad. “If you want to improve your gut health, the first thing you have to do is look at what you put on the end of your fork and address how you talk to yourself,” says Panyko.
Neurotransmitters like serotonin—a mood stabilizer that regulates mood, appetite, digestion and sleep, among other functions—are produced in the gut by specific kinds of microbes. An out-of-balance microbiome can affect the release of serotonin and hence have an impact on your mood and behavior.
Additionally, your immune system can be weakened and your gut lining more susceptible to being damaged, causing an inflammatory response in your body.
“Candida albicans, the yeast that can go fungal and cause problems for a lot of people, can detect norepinephrine levels, and when it detects them it knows that the body is busy dealing with whatever stressful situation we are having and so it takes that opportunity to overgrow, and that can damage good microbes and reduce their numbers,” explains Miller.
What an Imbalanced Microbiome Can Feel Like
An out-of-balance microbiome can start with indigestion, burping, bloating, constipation or diarrhea. It can also cause IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and IBD (irritable bowel disease).
Brain fog, difficulty sleeping, joint pain, skin rashes, weight gain or a negative change in mood are also common symptoms of an imbalance in the microbiome.
“Some people get a sense that something is off. They can get moody, they can get short-tempered, or have full-blown anxiety,” says Miller.
Since our gut plays a significant role in our immune system and mental and emotional health, the question we need to consider is, how do we keep our gut microbiome healthy?
Keep the Gut Microbiome Healthy
Three major factors in maintaining a healthy microbiome are:
- Feeding your body fiber-rich, whole foods
- Maintaining low stress levels
- Using over-the-counter and antibiotic medications only when medically necessary; they kill both beneficial and pathogenic bacteria
“Our microbiome thrives on fiber-rich foods. Feed your microbiome foods they love and they will take care of you in return,” says Miller.
Fiber-rich foods include leafy greens, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, berries, root vegetables, tubers and mushrooms. Good fats like those found in olive oil and avocado are supportive of our microbiome, as well as lean proteins. Drink plenty of water to maintain proper hydration and get adequate vitamin D and exercise.
Meditation, massage and activities that destress our bodies are important to our microbiome’s health, too. “Our microbes don’t like sedentary lifestyles; they like movement,” says Miller.
“Massage is really good for the microbiome because it reduces stress. When we are under stress and pressure, we release cortisol and stress hormones and they can actually damage the microbiome. Massage can be very beneficial,” Miller added.
Work with a Gut Health Coach
Understanding your body’s unique microbiome takes trial and error. Since your gut microbiome is based on genetics, how you were raised, your lifestyle and stress levels, it is helpful to work with a gut health coach to identify the right combination and lifestyle for you.
Health coaches help you analyze what you’re eating and how it affects your body and mood. They often use a food diary and get a thorough life health history. And because not everyone processes food in the same way, some coaches will request urine and stool tests, and even a DNA test, as Miller does with her clients. Specific probiotics may be recommended as well as other supplementation.
“It is important to have a health coach because they are there to actually teach you to become your own practitioner. Over time you will feel healthier because your coach helped you get off of unhealthy foods. One person’s food is another person’s poison. With a health coach, you can recognize that,” says Rabel.
Keep it Simple
Our gut microbiome is an intricate system of microbes that helps to support our survival and quality of life. And maintaining its health is relatively easy, says Panyko. Simply notice what is on the end of your fork and ask yourself how nutritious it is.
“Our body is a system, and if one part of our system is off, like the microbiome, then that throws off the homeostasis of the rest of our body. In order for us to maintain homeostasis, we want our gut biome to maintain homeostasis,” says Rabel.
Aiyana Fraley, LMT, is a freelance writer and health care professional with more than 18 years of experience in the massage field. She teaches yoga and offers sessions in massage, Reiki, sound healing and essential oils. Her articles for massagemag.com include “The Massage Therapist’s Guide to Assisted Stretching Techniques” and “Will Touch in Long-Term Care Facilities be Changed Forever by COVID-19?”