Apr 01, 2024

WINKEL: Building a healthy microbiome

Posted Apr 01, 2024 4:00 PM
written by: Karissa Winkel - Cottonwood Extension District
written by: Karissa Winkel - Cottonwood Extension District

Bacteria usually gets a bad rap for causing infection, contaminating food, and weakening the immune system. However, some strains of these microorganisms are extremely beneficial to human health.

You might know these bugs as “good bacteria” that reside in the microbiome of the gut. These microbes break down foods and play an important role in nutrient absorption. They even generate vitamins B, B12, and K. Good gut bacteria play a part in defending against illness by developing immune cells and controlling the inflammatory response. Not only do they contribute to digestive and immune function, microbiota produce neurotransmitters and hormones which can impact mental and neurological health.

The human microbiome contains about 100 trillion microorganisms which is 10 times the number of cells in the body! At such a large number, these bacteria greatly influence the well-being of the entire body.

In fact, emerging research indicates that gut health is directly related to chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, irritable bowel syndrome, neurological disorders, and more. When the gut is unhealthy, overgrowth of harmful bacteria limits the capacity of good bacteria. Diversity of microbes may also be limited which causes imbalance. This is called dysbiosis, and symptoms may include nutrient malabsorption, permeability of the intestinal wall, reduced immune response, and increased inflammation throughout the body.

Gut health is influenced at birth and factors such as breastfeeding contribute to colonization of microbiota at an early age. Throughout life, gut health can be impacted by a variety of lifestyle choices like diet, stress management, and antibiotic use.

Diet can be one of the most effective ways to impact gut health. Studies show that eating a plant-based diet supports microbiota because fiber present in produce, beans, and grains feeds good bacteria. “Eating the rainbow” by including a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables also

supports the diversity of bacteria in the gut. Another way to support the microbiome is through fermented foods. A few examples include sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha, kefir, and sourdough bread containing probiotics. These are beneficial live bacteria that replenish the microbiome.

Stress is a multidimensional factor that can harm the gut. Research indicates that hormones and neurotransmitters have direct communication between the gut and the brain. When chronic stress is present, hormones such as cortisol can recompose the microbiome by supporting the growth of harmful bacteria. Therefore, managing stress is essential to promote a healthy microbiome. Regular exercise, meditation and prayer, and adequate sleep have been shown to reduce stress.

Throughout history, antibiotics have saved millions of lives and prevented the spread of mass disease. However, regular use of antibiotics can be harmful. This is because antibiotics destroy both bad and good bacteria, including microbiota. When overuse of antibiotics results in dysbiosis, the immune system can be compromised. This can lead to a vicious cycle of illness, antibiotic use, and impaired gut health among other health concerns.

Caring for the microbiome can make a tremendous impact on overall health. After all, it is an environment that contains over 100 trillion microorganisms. No wonder why it affects the whole body! Maintaining balance and increasing diversity of good bacteria through a plant-based diet, stress management, and proper use of antibiotics are just a few ways to build a healthy microbiome.

Karissa Winkel is the Family and Community Wellness Agent with K-State Research and Extension – Cottonwood District. You may reach her at: 620-793-1910 or [email protected]. K-State Research & Extension is an equal opportunity provider and employer.