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Could Your Gut Microbiome Be Making You Sick?

March 17, 2020
Published in: Gastroenterology

Older Asian man sitting on a sofa holding his stomach

Bacteria and other microorganisms are infamous for making us sick, but they're not all bad. In fact, you share your body with trillions of them. That might sound concerning but don't worry, they're symbiotic and they're here to help! Without the large number of microscopic critters living in your digestive tract, your body wouldn't work properly.

A Win-Win Situation

probiotic bacteriaYour digestive system has trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, especially in your intestines, where your nutrients are absorbed. Studies have found that the total amount of bacteria in a human body can weigh in at about 2-5 pounds, and collectively they function as a sort of extra 'organ' in the body. So many microorganisms live in your intestines that they are called a microbiome, and this micro-ecosystem has important effects on your health.

The microorganisms living inside your body aren't just taking care of themselves. Bacteria in your intestines help your body break down nutrients, keep your immune system functioning properly, and put together compounds like vitamins B and K. The Harvard School of Public Health lists a number of helpful bacteria like Prevotella, Ruminococcus, Bacteroides, and Firmicutes that live in the human gut and help crowd out other, harmful microbes so they can't infect your body.

When Things Go Wrong

So, what happens when your microbiome is off-balance or damaged? If the microorganisms in your body stop working, could your gut microbiome make you sick?

The answer is yes! A poorly balanced gut microbiome has been linked to many other health issues, from weight gain and inflammation, to depression and heart disease. You depend on a healthy amount of microbes to keep you healthy too!

yogurt with fresh cut strawberriesThe health of your microbiome also depends on your environment and diet. An unhealthy diet can upset the balance in your digestive system and kill off the bacteria you need to help you break down food. Antibiotics you may need to take for other health issues can also negatively impact your gut microbiome. When there are not enough 'good' microbes living in your system, that also means it's easier for 'bad' microbes to multiply and make you more vulnerable to infection.

Can You Fix Your Microbiome?

Probiotics (such as yogurt, kombucha, and other foods with active cultures) help replenish your population of helpful bacteria, but they can't do everything. Your overall diet is crucial for taking good care of your digestive system and its microscopic inhabitants. Eat a wide variety of foods, especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and skip the excess sweeteners. When you eat right, your microbiome will thank you!

If you are having serious stomach issues, talk with your family doctor about next steps.

Colorectal cancer screenings are recommended for between the age of 50 and 75. You may need to get tested before age 50 if colorectal cancer runs in your family. Most people can stop getting screened after the age of 75. Check with your doctor about your risk for colorectal cancer.