Quick flashback to biology 101: Your body is home to trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi. It sounds kind of gross, but it’s actually super amazing. Here’s everything you’ve always wanted to know about your microbiome.
So, what is your microbiome? “The microbiome is the collection of trillions of microorganisms that live in and on our body,” nutritional scientist Dr. Tracy Shafizadeh tells us. “The majority of microorganisms are bacteria; some good and some bad.” And while these microorganisms live all over the body, recent research has revealed that the ones found in your gut (aka the gut microbiome) are especially important to your overall health.
Why is the gut microbiome so important? Surprise: The gut microbiome is related to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colitis and acid reflux. “A lot of research going on right now is connecting gut health with autoimmune disease, neurodegenerative disorder, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity,” explains Dr. Erika Angle, biochemist and CEO of gut microbiome test Ixcela. “The gut microbiome is such a hot area now because people are realizing it’s not just its own system. It’s actually linked to your brain health, emotional health, cardiovascular health and other systems, as well.” Whoa.
How do I know if my gut health is out of whack? There are the obvious clues that something’s not quite right (like chronic tummy aches, IBS, constipation and diarrhea), and then there are some more scientific methods, Dr. Angle says. By identifying which bacteria are produced by the gut and in what amounts, you can potentially determine whether they're functioning in the way that they should be. Companies like Viome and Ixcela offer users at-home microbiome tests that aim to do exactly that, by analyzing blood or stool samples to give health and diet insights.
And what can I do to create a healthier microbiome? While there are some factors that influence your gut health that are out of your control (like genetics or having taken antibiotics as a child), there are plenty of things you can do to change your gut microbiome. That’s because your gut is a competitive environment, which means that you can give an advantage to the good bacteria over the bad bacteria by feeding them a certain way. Factors that can help the good guys? A healthy and varied diet rich in nutrients, supplements (oh hey, probiotics) and exercise, Dr. Angle says. And in even better news, a recent study published in Science magazine found that tea, coffee and wine can also help improve the diversity of gut microbes. (BRB, pouring ourself a glass of Cab Sav.)
Let’s say that I’ve decided to tackle my gut health. When will I see results? Even if you ate a giant bowl of probiotic-rich yogurt this morning, don’t expect your gut microbiome to change overnight. “You can see some changes after about a month or so, but it takes about two to three months for the gut bacteria to really shift,” Dr. Angle tells us. But hey, there’s no harm in enjoying a Greek yogurt parfait the meantime. (Just go easy on the sugar, OK?)