I received a lot of feedback on my essay last week about leaky gut syndrome – what it is, how to identify it and how to manage it. It’s clear it’s an issue many of you have thought about or have dealt with personally.
A common theme in your questions and comments was the idea of probiotics and their role in balancing your gut.
Growing research supports the use of probiotics for gut health. That goes for sufferers of leaky gut and those who simply want to make sure the right nutrients are getting where they need to go.
To understand how they work and why they’re beneficial, let’s take a look at what’s in your gut and what it needs.
Your Personal Habitat
The human body contains trillions of tiny organisms called microbes. They interact with each other and with what we introduce into our systems in an ecosystem called a microbiome.
No two microbiomes are alike. They are shaped by what we eat, where we live and how we sleep. They also adapt to changes in our environment.
Most of these tiny organisms live in our gut. (They’re also found on our skin and in our noses and mouths.) They are the beneficial bacteria – or gut flora – that foster a strong immune system and keep us healthy. And their good health is essential to yours.
That’s where probiotics come in. A diverse collection of healthy bacteria in the gut is critical. When the bacteria in our gut is out of balance, health issues aren’t far behind.
Researching the Connections
Growing – and intense – interest in the human microbiome has led to a rich body of research on how our gut makes us healthier.
High-profile studies published in both Nature and Science (and many smaller journals) have proven a link exists between our gut flora and diet and health, including chronic conditions. Again, probiotics help to nurture this balance.
A study in the Journal of Physiology back in 2004 also revealed a fascinating connection called the “gut-brain axis.”
The gut-brain axis links the central nervous system with the intestines. It’s been called “the missing link in depression.” Ensuring this link is healthy can go a long way in beating depression and other forms of brain fog.
Scientists are also investigating the connection between gut microbes and the production of serotonin, histamine and adrenaline in the brain.
Research on the gut has gone so far as to map the microbiome, much like the Human Genome Project did with genomes.
Detailing Your Ecosystem
Launched in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health, the Human Microbiome Project has examined how people’s microbiomes transform over time, comparing those changes in the microbiome to levels of health and chronic conditions.
It’s easy to see why this work is crucial. We have at least 10 times more microbes than we have cells in our gastrointestinal tract. And our microbes have 100 times the genes we have in our genome. That means these microbes have a significantly greater influence than that of our own DNA on the way our bodies behave.
Because of this research, your doctor can now order microbiome tests that use sequencing technology to learn more about your microbiome and what its makeup means for your health.
So how do you keep your microbiome healthy? It’s all in your diet.
The Role of Probiotics
I provided a list of gut-healthy foods in my previous article that all support and feed a healthy gut. But probiotics may be the most significant piece of the equation.
Probiotics introduce the right active and healthy bacterial cultures – live microorganisms – to your gut. You can get them into your system through eating food or taking supplements. Kefir, miso, raw cheese and yogurt add a variety of good bacteria that help counteract any bad bacteria you may have.
Fermented vegetables (such as sauerkraut and kimchi), with their acidic makeup, support the growth of good bacteria in the gut.
These foods all play a meaningful role in balancing the composition of the gut microbiome. They can improve digestion, strengthen the immune system and help with inflammation.
Adding probiotics to your diet will help support a healthy gut and a healthier you. But before you make any significant lifestyle changes, consult with your doctor to pick the right probiotic approach for your particular health needs and goals.
Dr. Sanjay Jain, MD, MBA