Last week I introduced you to the microbiome. We learned that it is the friendly community of bacteria and yeast that lives in your gut and that it VASTLY outnumbers your own cells and even your own DNA.1 Today, we will take this several steps further and discuss in a bit more detail two of the main roles the microbiome plays.
What does the microbiome do?
More than 100,000 studies and scientific statements on gut health can be found via a click on Pub Med (where studies are frequently posted). With so many studies, the subject of gut health can be overwhelming to break down, making it difficult to answer the simple question “what does the microbiome do?”
After reviewing a lot of what’s out there, and cross-referencing the idea with a few deep experts in the field, I’ve narrowed the role the microbiome plays into 4 main tasks:1-5
- Mining calories and nutrients from food you cannot digest or metabolize.
- Producing very important and impactful compounds that your body depends on for function.
- Breaking down things you don’t want or need.
- Keeping “bad” pathogens away.
Let’s dig into the first two today (in my next post, we will dig into numbers 3 and 4).
Mines calories and nutrients from food and metabolizes things you can’t.
You probably already know that your digestive system breaks down the food you eat. BUT - Did you know that your gut relies heavily on its microbiome to do almost half of the work?1
It’s been shown that guts with a high abundance of bacteria extract 50% more nutrition out of their diets than those with a low abundance.1,3,4 With millions of people taking vitamin supplements every day, perhaps we should take a closer look at the health of our microbiomes first: simply getting that back on track may remove the need to supplement at all. (That’s what I call working smart!)
These bacteria don’t just mine for nutrients, they actually help you break down stuff you can’t.1,3,4 Ever eaten something that gave you heart burn, bloating, or indigestion? Millions report experiencing this after meals every day. Many people take it a step further to say they’re allergic or sensitive to something in their diet. (By the way there are billions of dollars being made in that industry alone - aka lactose intolerance, food allergy testing, etc. - but that’s a whole other post). It’s very possible that some of this sensitivity and indigestion could be alleviated by nurturing a healthy microbiome, because bacteria in your gut can help break down top allergens and sensitivity-causing food components.1-7 Case in point: Perhaps you can actually eat ice cream after all! (alriggggggggggght!)
Produces very important and impactful compounds that your body depends on for function.
This is probably the space where we have the most research, so no one blog post is going to bring you up to speed. It would take 100 textbooks, there’s so much!
Here’s what you need to know: upon eating prebiotics (found in fermented foods, fruits, veggies, and things with fiber), the microbiome produces VERY important compounds (called metabolites) that directly affect many aspects of your body and overall health.1-7 Let me make something clear – these metabolites are not some minor thing that sort of move the needle 1%. Rather, in many cases these metabolites are the body’s main driver for something important (aka your body can’t do it WITHOUT the microbiome’s help.) To make this more interesting, these compounds are hard to find in food so your body completely depends on this flora for their key work.
I’ll give you one example of this, but know there are THOUSANDS more. Let’s talk about BUTYRATE. You’ve probably never consciously thought or cared about butyrate, but if you could tap into your liver or brain’s ego, it would be at the very top of their priority list.
Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid that is highly connected to how you break down sugar, manage insulin, and regulate mood (the most studied is 50 different ways butyrate makes your brain release dopamine).6,7 In fact, diabetes, insulin resistance, and depression have ALL been significantly linked to low butyrate levels in the gut.1,2,6,7 Butyrate is “made” by very specific bacteria that eats a very specific type of prebiotic found in fermented foods, a variety of vegetables, and a few fruits. The moral of the story? If you care about your overall mood state and avoiding conditions like diabetes, you might want to care about what’s happening in your belly (and what you’re putting in your mouth).
And it doesn’t stop there. These metabolites formed by your microbiome significantly drive the health and productivity of your inflammatory and immune system, your hormones, your mood, your skin, your metabolism, and your energy levels.1-3,6,7
Hopefully by now you’re starting to see that a lot more than a little unpleasant gas is at stake if your gut isn’t full of both native and “visitor” critters. It’s how happy you are, how much glow you got, how effectively you fight a virus, and how easily you can eat and digest things. It’s even more than that, but isn’t that enough? Keep watch for my next post to learn more about the remaining 2 main roles a microbiome plays.
Until then, try doing ONE thing good for your gut. Fermented food? One more veggie/fruit? Some prebiotic soda? We promise, you won’t regret it. And don’t forget to #FOLLOWYOURGUT
Eamonn M. M. Quigley, MD, FRCP, FACP, FACG, FRCPI, et al. Gut Bacteria in Health and Disease. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2013 Sep; 9(9): 560–569.
- Guarner F, Malagelada JR. Gut flora in health and disease. Lancet. 2003;361(9356):512–519.
- Sekirov I, Russell SL, Antunes LC, Finlay BB. Gut microbiota in health and disease. Physiol Rev. 2010;90(3):859–904.
- Clemente JC, Ursell LK, Parfrey LW, Knight R. The impact of the gut micro-biota on human health: an integrative view. Cell. 2012;148(6):1258–1270.
- O’Hara AM, Shanahan F. The gut flora as a forgotten organ. EMBO Rep. 2006;7(7):688–693.
Serena Sanna et al. Causal relationships among the gut microbiome, short-chain fatty acids and metabolic diseases. Nature genetics. 2019; 51, pages600–605.
Mireia Valles-Colomer et al. The neuroactive potential of the human gut microbiota in quality of life and depression. Nature Microbiology. 2019; 4, pages623–632.