The gut microbiome is the ecosystem within us, which comfortably resides in a pocket within the large intestine called the “cecum”. Our gut microbiome is made up of approximately 1000 different species of bacteria who all play a different role in the human body and our overall health. These species of bacteria consist of both good & bad bacteria. When the gut microbiome is overgrown with bad bacteria this decreases the number of good bacteria, causing an imbalance between the two. This is referred to as dysbiosis (1). Dysbiosis can affect aspects of our health including immune response, allergies, skin condition, inflammatory bowel diseases, weight gain, celiac disease and may even play a role in diabetes, chronic disease, mental health conditions and even cancer (1).
So, what might be harming your good gut bacteria?
EXCESS ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION
Excess alcohol consumption has been seen to cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria, ultimately causing dysbiosis (3). This has been directly associated with gastrointestinal inflammation, leaky gut syndrome leading to an increase of toxins in the bloodstream, cell damage and alcohol liver disease (3). Despite this, certain alcoholic beverages may favourably alter our gut microbiome (3). One study conducted showed that the polyphenol content in red wine increased the abundance of certain good bacteria species (3). Polyphenols are micronutrients found in plant-based-foods which are packed with antioxidants to support digestion. So next time you feel like a bevvy, reach for a glass of red instead!
It is already known that cigarettes are made up of thousands of chemical compounds (7357 to be exact) that can increase your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke and many more (4). Cigarettes are also considered a significant risk factor for developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) and double the risk of developing Crohn’s disease (4). The absorption of toxic chemical compounds found in cigarettes can alter the gut microbiome, affect bowel mucosa, and lower immune function (4). However, it is not all doom-and-gloom. Studies show that once a smoker completely quits smoking, the composition of the gut microbiome may recover and return to pre-smoking condition after 4-8 weeks (4). It is never too late to try!
FOLLOWING A WESTERNISED DIET
Our diet is quite literally the foundation of our gut microbiome, meaning that what we eat is vital for our gut health and general wellbeing. Unfortunately, 42% of Australian’s follow a Westernised diet that is characterised by high intakes of fat, sugar and processed foods and low intakes of fibre, fruits and vegetables (5). This diet has a poor nutritional profile and ultimately starves the good bacteria in our gut, allowing an overgrowth of the bad (5). The Westernised diet has an extremely high inflammatory index and is a major risk factor for many chronic diseases (5).
Studies suggest that consuming a diet full of diverse plant-based foods is most effective in promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria and supporting our gut microbiome (6). Plants are full of micronutrients, antioxidants, prebiotics, and fibre, all of which assist better gut health, immune function and prevent free radical damage.
LACK OF PHYSICAL EXERCISE
Studies suggest that exercise alone can positively alter our gut microbiome (7). Exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer, inflammatory bowel diseases, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders and increase immune function (7). In one 6-week study, previously sedentary individuals had increased levels of beneficial gut bacteria and the short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) butyrate, which is great for reducing inflammation and vital to good gut health (7). Research suggests that sustained exercise is best, so aim for balance and consistency by getting your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes a day (7). This is significantly linked to better gut health and wellbeing.
Although antibiotics are considered essential for fighting infectious diseases, they have many negative effects on our gut microbiome and immune function (8). Antibiotics are used to kill pathogenic bacteria but due to their broad-spectrum ability, they, unfortunately, kill good bacteria at the same time which can lead to dysbiosis and increase gut inflammation (8). Antibiotics can also reduce immune function by decreasing gut immune cells and may induce antibiotic-associated diarrhoea which can both increase susceptibility to further infection (8).
The gut and brain are very intricately linked through what is called the gut-brain-axis. When we are more stressed and anxious our body goes into a “fight or flight response” which is essentially survival mode. This causes the body to divert blood away from the gut to our muscles, so we are ready to run for our lives from whatever is causing us stress. This can lead to poor digestion and absorption of nutrients which creates nutritional deficiencies and weakens the gut wall lining. An impaired gut wall lining can lead to increased toxins and bad bacteria entering the bloodstream and increase the risk of many inflammatory bowel diseases (9).
LACK OF SLEEP
Sleep deprivation can alter the circadian rhythm of our body. The circadian rhythm is essentially our body's 24-hour internal clock that affects your brain, body and hormones and controls when you should feel awake and when it is time to sleep (10). Studies suggest that our gut microbiome also works by this circadian rhythm as certain bacterial species showed a change in abundance from day to night (10). Interfering with the circadian rhythm and sleep pattern of your body can change the balance and diversity of your gut microbiome and increase the abundance of bacteria associated with weight gain and obesity (10). A lack of sleep can lead to emotional stress and cause an impaired gut wall lining leading to increased toxins and bad bacteria entering the bloodstream (10).
All in all, your gut microbiome plays a pretty important role in your overall health and an imbalance between good and bad bacteria can have some detrimental short-term and long- term health problems. Poor dietary choices, lack of exercise, excess alcohol consumption, cigarettes, antibiotics, stress and lack of sleep can all significantly harm your gut bacteria. Here are some easy-to-follow tips to help you rebalance your gut microbiome and get you started on your gut health & wellness journey:
- Exercise daily and get your body moving for at least 30 minutes. Your gut microbiome will love you for this
- Ensure you are getting enough sleep, at least 8 hours
- Manage your stress through practices such as meditation and yoga
- Consume 30 different plant-based foods per week
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