It may be surprising to know that our bodies are host to trillions of tiny organisms that live both inside and outside our bodies. These small organisms are invisible to the naked eye and vastly outnumber the cells comprising our bodies. Weighing approximately 3 pounds,  the collection of these organisms are called our microbiome. We are not born with a microbiome, but our bodies begin to be populated by these organisms during birth through the vaginal canal and continues after our entry to the world. These bacteria establish an ecosystem where good bacteria balance potentially harmful bacteria. Each person’s microbiome is as unique as a fingerprint and the quantity and diversity of our microbiome, particularly the ones that live in our intestines (our gut microbiome), can have a significant impact on our mental and physical health health.

The American Psychological Association reports that gut bacteria produce chemicals that influence mental and physiological processes including mood, learning and memory.  Up to ninety-five percent of serotonin,  a neurochemical that plays a major role in the regulation of mood, appetite, sex and sleep, is produced by gut bacteria. As such, gut bacteria has been linked to the occurrence of stress, anxiety and depression. Gut bacteria have also been shown to aid the production of vitamins B and K, both of which help with immune health. Obesity is affected by gut bacteria. Researchers found that a particular strain of gut bacteria was more common in people with low body weight and less present in obese people. Other health conditions that have been associated with gut bacteria include autism, cancer and insulin resistance.

Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., an integrative medicine specialist, reports that the typical American microbiome has been significantly compromised. The average American has 1,000-1,200 different species of gut bacteria in comparison to the 1,600 average found among people in Africa and Latin America living in remote areas. Thus, Americans have lost diversity in gut bacteria. The reasons for the loss of gut bacterial diversity are multifold: processed foods, overuse of antibiotics (which kill off both the harmful and helpful bacteria), increased sanitation and increase in C-section births which prevent exposure to bacteria naturally occurring in the vaginal canal.

The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to restore the gut microbiome. You can boost gut bacteria in the following ways:
1. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and whole, unprocessed foods. Each type and color has its own type of helpful bacteria. Eliminate processed foods as much as possible as they feed more of the harmful bacteria which destroy the healthful eco-balance of the microbiome.
2. Eat fermented foods (2-3 servings per day is adequate) which contain loads of friendly bacteria such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kefir and yogurt (without added sugar which feeds the wrong kind of bacteria!).  Be sure to purchase brands located in the refrigerated section of the grocery store and have live cultures. The canning process uses heat that kills bacteria.
3. Limit the use of antibiotics and use when truly necessary.
4. Opt for vaginal deliveries and breast feeding which supply a good base of necessary bacteria.
5. Don’t over wash hands – wash when in contact with known pathogens.
6. Supplement with a high quality, broad spectrum probiotic. You want one that has several different active strains. See the article below on choosing a good probiotic.

For more information on the gut microbiome and choosing a good probiotic, see the links below.

Submitted by Holly O. Houston, Ph.D. Licensed Clinical Psychologist