When you hear the term “bacteria,” you probably instantly think of the nasty germs living on your hands or on dirty surfaces that can make you sick. While some bacteria are certainly hazardous to our health, not all bacteria are bad bacteria—in fact, there are hundreds of forms of bacteria living inside our bodies, helping to keep us healthy.
The gut, in particular, houses a large amount of this bacteria, which aid in the digestion of food, absorption of nutrients and much, much more. It makes sense when you think about it—we require food to fuel our bodies. Without food, we will become weak and our bodies will shut down. In order to process that fuel, food must travel through our digestive system—which is exactly where so much of this “good” bacteria lives, along with other microorganisms.
Bacteria, viruses, fungi and others make up your microbiome, or gut flora, and rely on a crucial characteristic: balance. While it’s obvious that this colony of microorganisms in our colon can cause digestive problems when imbalanced, many people don’t realize that gut flora imbalances can affect many other aspects of your body:
- Digestion: An upset stomach is one of the first and most common symptoms of an imbalance of gut flora. Gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea are typical signs that your gut is out of whack, but so are more major problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
- Immunity: Your gut flora affects much more beyond your gut, itself, though. It can actually disrupt your immune system, as well, causing you to get sick more easily. A large portion of the bacteria in your immune system are located in your digestive system, and if that gets imbalanced, your body won’t be able to defend itself like it normally can. This can be potentially life-threatening if your immune system can’t stave off a major infection.
- Mental health: If you’re feeling more depressed, anxious or moody, your gut bacteria might actually be to blame! Hundreds of neurons are located in the intestines, which communicate to your brain to produce neurotransmitters to regulate your mood, such as serotonin. Low levels of “good” gut bacteria may lead to increased feelings of anxiety, depression and brain fog. Researchers are also studying gut bacteria’s possible links to autism and other brain disorders.
- Energy: Have you felt fatigued and tired, despite getting an adequate amount of sleep each night? An imbalance of gut bacteria may be causing this problem. Since gut flora is directly responsible for your metabolism, digesting food and absorbing nutrients for your body, an imbalanced group of bacteria can lead to a lack of important vitamins and minerals, or a lack of body fuel as a whole.
Keeping your bacteria in balance
You may not think you have much control over the inner workings of your bowels, but your lifestyle and diet play a major role in regulating the amount of good and bad bacteria in your gut. If you are experiencing symptoms of gut flora imbalance, the first thing you should do is work to regulate it by making healthier lifestyle choices:
- Eat healthy: One of the biggest players in determining your gut flora is the food you eat, which is filled with different kinds of bacteria. Limit your intake of sugars, which can kill good bacteria, and focus on eating fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. Diversify your diet to introduce the variety and balanced growth of other bacteria.
- Take probiotics: Probiotics stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria and can be found in foods like live-cultured yogurt and sauerkraut, or other fermented foods. You can also take probiotic supplements, which aid in the replenishment of bacteria.
- Regulate stress: High levels of unmanaged stress causes the body to produce a hormone called cortisol, which can affect the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. If left untreated, stress can wreak havoc on your body and throw your gut out of whack—leaving you with additional health problems as a result of imbalanced gut flora.
- Steer clear of antibiotics: Antibiotics are necessary to clear many infections but can sometimes do more harm than good when it comes to your gut. This is because they don’t just kill the bad bacteria causing problems—they also kill the good bacteria, creating imbalances and paving the way for fungi and viruses to overgrow. While you may need to take them to help fix a larger issue, avoid them whenever possible.
It’s certainly possible to get your gut flora back on track and well-regulated with healthy lifestyle choices like adequate sleep, stress management and a well-balanced diet. These choices will help keep your gut—and thus, your whole body—balanced and healthy.