In the past few years, there has been a ton of emerging research on the topic of gut health. More specifically, researchers are looking into the healthy bacteria that live in our gut and how they might affect health. Quite a bit has been uncovered, and more information is being brought to the surface everyday. Here are four things that you may not know about gut health.
The gut is filled with genetic material. The human gut contains roughly 100 trillion microbial cells, or about 10x more than the rest of the human body. These microbial cells consist of bacteria, viruses, fungi, archae and eurokaryotes, and, collectively, they are referred to as the microbiome. These microbes represent as many as 5,000 different species and weigh approximately 2 kilograms. Every single microbe has DNA that plays a role in its overall function. Scientists are now studying these microbes to determine how their genes may affect our health. Interestingly, compared to the person sitting next to you, your human DNA is 99.9% identical, whereas your microbial genes are only about a 10% match. For this reason, it has been immensely difficult for researchers to classify and characterize all of the microbes in the microbiome.
Your microbiome starts to develop the moment you’re born. Twenty minutes after birth, the microbiome of vaginally delivered infants resembles the microbes from their mother’s vagina. Infants delivered via Cesarean section tend to develop a microbiome with microbial communities usually found on the mother’s skin. If the child is breastfed, the microbiome then adapts to the environment and different bacteria develop to digest this type of milk. Specifically, human milk contains oligosaccharides not normally found in cow’s milk. Scientists have discovered the breastfed infants harbor more of the microbe called b. Infantis, which keep microbes out of the bloodstream and protects the immune system. Once solid foods are introduced, the bacteria in the microbiome become more diverse to help digest these new foods. By age three, a toddler’s microbiome starts to resemble that of an adult.
Antibiotics affect the bacteria in your gut..in a negative way. Although antibiotics are necessary to fight against infection, they do a real number on the good bacteria living in your gut. Three to four days after taking an antibiotic, the gut microbes are less rich and experience severe imbalances. These imbalances can cause negative digestive and immune responses. After an antibiotic regimen, the gut microbiome start to resemble their pre-treatment state about a week later, but some microbes fail to return at all. Some research even suggests that antibiotics may negatively affect the microbiome for up to four years. So think twice before popping an unprescribed antibiotic for a head cold.
Your weight affects the makeup of your microbiome. There are two major microbial classes, Firmicutes and Bacteriodetes. When researchers looked at the microbiome of genetically obese mice, they found significantly less Bacteriodetes and an abundance of Firmicutes, as compared to their lean counterparts. Further research was conducted to determine if similar circumstances exist in humans. Researchers found that when people were placed on a calorie- restricted diet, their abundance of Bacteriodetes increased as their body weight decreased. They are now looking into whether or not they may be able to alter the microbiome of an obese patient to promote weight loss.
Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD is a NYC-based media Dietitian, food and nutrition writer and owner of Nutrition ȧ la Natalie, a sports nutrition practice and blog. Natalie writes for many national publications, such as EatingWell, Shape.com, FitnessMagazine.com, Runner’s World and Food Network Healthy Eats. Keep up with her long-distance running adventures and plant-based creations on her Instagram or Facebook page.