So much new research has come out on the gut and its crucial role as the foundation of health in recent years, it's almost hard to keep up!1 While all this emerging information is absolutely fascinating, we also understand that it can be a little overwhelming, especially if you're just starting to learn about your gut and how it affects every aspect of your health. And the truth is, even if you've been paying attention to nurturing your microbiome for a while, checking in with your gut periodically to make sure everything is on track is a crucial part of maintaining your health.
That's why we've come up with three short questions you can ask yourself any time you think your microbiome needs some extra care, or if you simply want to make sure you're doing everything you can for your gut.
So the next time you're wondering how you can better support your gut health, ask yourself:
1. Am I getting enough prebiotic foods?
Prebiotics are like fertilizer for probiotics: they're indigestible fibers that feed the good bacteria in your gut.2 You're probably familiar with some prebiotic foods already––oats, garlic, honey, and bananas are great sources––but the good news is that most plant-based foods contain some amount of prebiotics.
The problem, though, is that it’s very difficult in our modern world to get enough prebiotics from the food you eat. And without enough sustenance, your friendly flora face an uphill battle against the less hospitable strains in your gastrointestinal tract. And don't forget, some foods even have the opposite effect of prebiotics—they feed the less hospitable bacteria in your gut instead of the good. Unfortunately, these are much more common in our Western diet: think processed foods, sugar, gluten, and dairy.3,4,5
What's more, your bacteria need a lot of prebiotic fiber to really thrive. While hunter-gatherer tribes used to get between 100-150 grams of fiber a day––and the results were reflected in their incredibly diverse microbiomes—most of us today struggle to get even half the recommended daily dosage of 25 grams.6
So, unless you're already using a prebiotic supplement (or you’re living amongst a modern-day foraging tribe!), you're likely not getting nearly enough prebiotic fiber. Try to include plenty of fiber-rich prebiotic foods in your diet, and consider adding in organic, food-based prebiotic powder to your daily wellness routine.
2. How are my moods?
While a connection between your gut and your moods might seem a little far fetched, your gut is actually intricately connected to your brain.7 We tend to think of the brain telling the gut what to do, but research shows that it's very much a two way street. Your gut and your brain are in constant communication via your vagus nerve, which means that your brain can help signal your gut to digest properly, can trigger those butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous, and can have an impact on the way you feel.
It turns out that "gut feelings" can be just that––changes in your moods can originate in changes in your gut bacteria. When your gut bacteria are in balance, they signal the body to produce the hormones and neurotransmitters responsible for your moods, including serotonin, which makes you feel happy; GABA, which keeps you calm; and oxytocin, which makes you feel connected and loved. It goes the other way, too, though: when your gut bacteria are out of balance, your body tends to produce more of the hormones associated with stress and bad moods, like cortisol.8
Of course, many things can have an effect on how you're feeling, but it's worth paying attention to any big mood swings or overall changes in mood. If they've been accompanied by changes in your diet (which has a huge affect on your microbiome) or other circumstances that can throw your bacteria off, then it might be time to give your gut some extra support.
3. Do I spend enough time outside?
Americans tend to spend around 90% of their time indoors, which is less-than-ideal for gut health. You see, changes in the way that buildings have been built in recent decades mean that most indoor environments are more or less airtight. While this is good for reducing electricity usage, it's bad for the microbiome. When air can't circulate, the bacteria in a building stagnate into a "microbial soup", and some can even start releasing harmful VOCs. Since we're inside so much, this means that we're exposed to these harmful substances from the bacteria, along with other toxins from paint, building materials, and cleaning products. All of this can be damaging to your microbiome, and by extension, your health.9
Fortunately, spending time outside in nature is one of the best things you can do to help your microbiome thrive. It not only increases your exposure to new types of bacteria, which can then increase your microbial diversity (a marker of good health), it also has a number of other gut-related health benefits. For instance, spending time outside puts the body into "rest and digest" mode, which lowers your stress levels and gives your body a chance to build up the immune system.10 Both are good news for your microbiome, since they support the growth of good bacteria in your gut.
Gut health is incredibly important, and it's easy to start taking steps to improve it. By making a conscious effort to foster your microbiome and doing your best to minimize the things that can throw it out of balance, you'll give those good bacteria a fighting chance.
Your answers to these three simple questions can serve as a barometer on how your gut's doing on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. If you check in often, you’ll discover that when you give your gut (and the miraculous microbes that call it home) the support it needs, you're not only supporting your microbiome; you're enabling yourself to live your healthiest, happiest days.
1. Hao, W.L., Lee, Y.K. (2004). Microflora of the gastrointestinal tract: a review. Methods in Molecular Biology, 268, 491-502.
2. Parnell, J. A., & Reimer, R. A. (2011). Prebiotic fibres dose-dependently increase satiety hormones and alter Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes in lean and obese JCR:LA-cp rats. British Journal of Nutrition,107(04), 601-613. doi:10.1017/s0007114511003163
3. Magnusson, K., Hauck, L., Jeffrey, B., Elias, V., Humphrey, A., Nath, R., . . . Bermudez, L. (2015). Relationships between diet-related changes in the gut microbiome and cognitive flexibility. Neuroscience, 300, 128-140.
4. Bonder M.J., Tigchelaar E.F., Cai X., Trynka G., Cenit M.C., Hrdlickova B., Zhong H., . . . Vatanen T., Gevers D., Wijmenga C., Wang Y. and Zhernakova A. (2016). The Influence of a Short-Term Gluten-Free Diet on the Human Gut Microbiome. Genome Medicine, 8(45). doi: 10.1186/s13073-016-0295-y
5. David, L. A., Maurice, C. F., Carmody, R. N., Gootenberg, D. B., Button, J. E., Wolfe, B. E., . . . Turnbaugh, P. J. (2013). Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Nature, 505(7484), 559-563.
6. Howarth N.C., Saltzman. E., Roberts S.B. (2001). Dietary Fiber and Weight Regulation. Nutrition Reviews May;59(5).
7. Bercik, P., Denou, E., Collins, J., Jackson, W., Lu, J., Jury, J., . . . Collins, S. M. (2011). The Intestinal Microbiota Affect Central Levels of Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor and Behavior in Mice. Gastroenterology, 141(2).
8. Bailey, M. T., Dowd, S. E., Galley, J. D., Hufnagle, A. R., Allen, R. G., & Lyte, M. (2011). Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: Implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 25(3), 397-407. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2010.10.023
9. Kembel, S.W., Jones, E., Kline, K., Northcutt, D., Stenson, J. . . . Green, J.L. (2012). Architectural Design Influences the Diversity and Structure of the Built Environment Microbiome. The ISME Journal 6. doi:10.1038
10. van den Berg, M., Maas, J., Muller, R., Braun, A. Kaandorp, K. . . . van den Berg, A. E. (2015). Autonomic Nervous System Responses to Viewing Green and Built Settings: Differentiating Between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Activity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 12(12). doi: 10.3390/ijerph121215026
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.