You may have seen reports recently linking a healthy gut microbiome (or gut flora) with various health benefits, but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the microbiome?

The microbiome refers to the billions of live bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms that live harmoniously in our digestive system. We actually have more bacteria than human cells. In fact, we have an average of over 1000 different species and we are still discovering how these different strains effect the health of our entire bodies.

Until recently most people, if they thought about those bacteria at all, tended to think of them as fairly separate from us. However, we are now beginning to understand that they are constantly interacting with us and in particular, our immune system, 70% of which is located in the gut. Although there is a lot still to discover, it is thought certain strains help stop pathogenic bacteria colonising in our gut by signalling our immune cells into action and even join in the fight.

More than just immunity, it seems the gut microbiome influences all aspects of human health and plays many roles such as producing vitamins, aiding digestion, preventing toxins from passing into the bloodstream, sending chemical messages to the brain, regulating appetite, releasing compounds that reduce inflammation and helping keep our bowels working well. As the research continues, we are discovering even more benefits.

You may notice some live bacteria supplements include plant fibres such as Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) usually found in chicory root. Plant fibres or prebiotics have been shown in studies to feed the growth of friendly microbes therefore, increasing the likelihood of the bacteria thriving.

Who will need extra support?

Certain medications (in particular antibiotics), alcohol and stress can destroy our microbiome. Diet is crucial as the microbes feed on what we are eating. People who have diets high in processed foods and sugars tend to have less of the friendly bacteria strains and a higher number of pathogenic strains. A 2018 study found just 10 days of a processed food diet reduced gut bacteria diversity by 40 percent. So, the healthier our diet, the healthier our gut.

Symptoms of bacteria imbalance include painful cramps, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea. We should eat a diet that creates an environment for good bacteria to flourish – adding plenty of fibre and fermented foods such as kefir, live yoghurt and sauerkraut. A live bacteria supplement is also a great way you can top up and give your gut that extra bit of love.

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