The Vital Importance of Healthy Gut Bacteria

Linked to everything from weight control to mental health, our gut bacteria is vital to our health—learn how to manage yours.

| May/June 2015

  • Asparagus is a good source of prebiotics—the food beneficial bacteria eat.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Our gut bacteria plays a vital role in everything from weight gain to mental health.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Traditionally fermented foods such as sauerkraut offer an excellent source of beneficial bacteria.
    Photo by iStock
  • One of the best ways to encourage a healthy population of beneficial microbiota is to eat a plant-based diet.
    Photo by Veer

Gut bacteria is the hot new area of scientific research, with a growing body of evidence linking widespread health issues—ranging from obesity and diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and depression—to the presence or absence of various microbes. While some of this research is very new, and science has a lot to learn about the connections between health and the microbes we carry around with us, it’s already clear just how much our gut bacteria matter to us.

So Many Microbes

What’s so important about the microbes in our bodies? To start with, there are a lot of them—we all carry trillions of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tracts (while a discussion of microbes in the human body might include fungi and viruses, most of the research we’re talking about in this article focuses on bacteria). These bacteria perform many critical functions, including digesting food and helping us absorb vitamins and medications. Gut bacteria also play a vital role in our immune systems, which influence our overall health in many ways.

One of the major sources of research on such bacteria is the Human Microbiome Project, run by the National Institutes of Health. Although the terms aren’t always used consistently in news articles, the “microbiome” is technically the collected genetic material of all the microbes in our bodies, while the microbes themselves are called the “microbiota.” The first phase of this ongoing project identified 10,000 species of microbes in the human body, some never known before. To learn about these microbes, scientists studied more than 200 healthy adults, taking samples from various parts of their bodies, including swabs from the skin, mouth and nose, as well as stool samples.

This research is uncovering a lot of interesting things. First, there is no universal “healthy” set of gut microbes; even among healthy people, there’s a wide variety in what’s present in gut bacteria. Each person’s microbiome is entirely unique.

Where do these differences come from? Science suggests many factors affect what our particular set of microbes look like, including environment, diet and antibiotic use. Some of our beneficial bacteria come directly from our mothers—we get many of them during passage through the birth canal. Children born vaginally appear to have greater diversity of microbes than those born through Cesarean section. Infants also get beneficial bacteria through breastfeeding.

Although all kinds of factors can shape what gut bacteria we end up with, our particular combination of microbes becomes stable surprisingly early—research suggests by age 3. However, some factors can shake that stable system, including dietary changes and treatment with antibiotics.

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