Any casual observer of Tiktok, Instagram and beyond knows that gut health is a big topic—and big business. From mushroom coffee companies to supplements, improving one’s gut microbiome—that is, the trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other life forms that live in the human body and, in particular, in the gut—is the focus of countless companies. That’s partly because more recent breakthroughs in genetic sequencing have allowed scientists to understand the microbiome better, including how the brain and the gut communicate and what functions are impacted in the process.
Emerging research suggests that gut health is related to a host of functions and outcomes, including mental health and mood, inflammation and weight. Each person’s microbiome is unique, with its own version of balance and communication. How to ensure that the gut microbiome is in good working order, then, is complicated, because each person’s needs are distinct. But there are some studies that, broadly speaking, indicate some general guidelines on how to improve the health of your gut microbiome.
We know. There’s nothing sexy about poop. But for people with serious, antibiotic-resistant infections that cause severe dehydration or colitis (known as c. diff infections), fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) has been a savior. According to one clinic that performs the transplants, in which feces from a healthy person is transferred to the colon of an unhealthy one, they cure 80-90% of patients.
Notably, however, FMT has only been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for about a year. In April, it approved the first orally administered fecal microbiota product, and only for individuals with c. diff infections.
In the digital jungle that promotes everything from people hawking celery juice as cancer prevention to kombucha as a cure-all, there are few agreed-upon, scientifically proven axioms of food intake. A few of them, however, include the nefarious impact of processed foods on the human body, the importance of fresh, organic produce and the value of fiber in the diet. The near-term benefit of fiber intake is linked to proper digestion, weight maintenance and regularity, as it’s known in polite circles.
More recently, however, diets high in fiber have also been linked to regulation of glucose and fat metabolism. When fiber starts to ferment in the gut, it produces short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which can positively impact the gut microbiome. What’s left to be discovered is exactly how SFCAs do that, and how treatments or types of fiber could target and promote that regulation.
For now, though, all the good-for-you food advice is the same: eat your veggies, your nuts and fruits and real food. Eschew the processed stuff, and get seasonal produce when possible. Soon enough, research may have more details to inform your intake of salad and high-fiber eats. (No, you don’t have to go all Rob Greenfield and grow your own food. But a few home-grown veggies never hurt, either.)
In the English language, there are numerous phrases for how we feel things in our stomach. That’s because “gut feeling” isn’t just a euphemism. The brain-gut axis means that each is constantly sending signals to the other: stress, anxiety, sadness and more can be felt in the belly, just as intestinal distress can signal anxiety to the brain.
Last year, two Dutch studies found a correlation between the overabundance of gut bacteria, called Eggerthella, and depression, as well between a smaller population of another type of bacteria, Subdoligranulum, and depression. Here again, diet can play a key role in improving the gut microbiome. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to support the production of Subdoligranulum and, as mentioned above, high-fiber diets help regulate the gut’s ecosystem.
Apart from diet, however, stress reduction overall can help soothe the mind and, in turn, the gut. Exercise, rest, time outdoors and deep breathing—all the typical good-for-you practices—all apply here. While the Wild West of gut-health remedies and improvement products continues to thrive and grow, in the absence of personalized protocols, it’s comforting to know that some of the basics of good nutrition, lifestyle and mental health still matter, more than ever.
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