It is a bit mind-blowing to think about, but we all have trillions of microorganisms from thousands of different species living inside our bodies and their collective term is microbiome.1
You’ll know that a strong immune system is vital to help us ward off common illnesses such as colds and flu, as well as reducing our chances of developing more serious diseases and autoimmune disorders.
But did you know how important the microbiome is in overall health?
Around 70-80% of our immune system can be found in our gut, where our gastrointestinal tract plays host to up to 1000 species of bacteria which can be the key to a person’s immunity and health status.2
Luckily, it is easy to be kind to your gut and strengthen your immune response with a few easy lifestyle changes.
In this article, we’ll run through
- Microbiome definition
- The importance of our microbiome and bacteria
- Where the microbiome is
- All about good and bad bacteria
- 7 benefits of a healthy microbiome
- Microbiome testing
- 5 ways to improve the microbiome
What is the microbiome in the gut?
The microbiome is essentially the name for the collection of bacteria and microorganisms that live inside our bodies.
Each person has a totally unique microbiome (aka, microbiota) consisting of not only bacteria, but parasites, viruses and fungi, too.
Our microbiomes are originally determined by DNA and are then influenced by how we are given birth to.
For example, a baby who is delivered vaginally will have a microbiota that resembles the one in their mother’s vagina, whereas an infant delivered by caesarean section will have a microbiome similar to that of their mother’s skin.
As time goes on, our microbiomes continue to grow and change, influenced largely by our diet and our environment.
For example, when infants transition from breast milk to solid foods, each small change affects the gut microbiota.3
Why is gut microbiome important?
The microbiome both plays crucial roles in our essential day-to-day bodily operations but also has the potential to cause harm.
It’s all about balance, you see, and these ‘bugs’ tend to coexist ‘harmoniously’ in healthy people.
Problems tend to start when this balance starts to tip in the favour of the harmful bacteria and our ‘good’ bacteria declines.
But there are ways to re-strengthen these populations, which we will get onto later.
Why bacteria are so important for our health
In the fight against illness, bacteria might seem like a dirty word.
However, the presence of trillions of microbes and bacteria in our bodies - known as our microbiome - is not only completely normal but also very important to our health.
This population of friendly microbes lives mainly in the gut and plays a major role in the functioning of our immune system, which helps keep the whole body well.
An imbalance in our microbiome leads to digestive issues such as bloating, diarrhoea, indigestion and can exacerbate conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Where is the microbiome?
It’s here, there, and everywhere!
The bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses that make up our microbiome tend to congregate in the large and small intestine, but they can be found all throughout our bodies.
From the populous gut microbiome that helps keep our bodies functioning normally from the inside out, to exterior skin microbiome ‘communities’ that can help strengthen our skin barrier and keep pathogenic or harmful organisms out, all microbiomes are important for our health.
Good and bad bacteria
Out of the trillions of bacteria that live in our bodies, so-called ‘friendly’ or ‘good’ bacteria are beneficial microbes that help the body perform vital functions such as digestion.
The ‘bad’ bacteria are the rarer type which can cause infections if the body is not able to fight them off.
The levels of friendly bacteria in the body must be abundant for the immune and digestive systems to work effectively, so it is important that we make lifestyle choices which support our microbiome.
The latest research indicates that keeping this balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria is a vital part of overall health, and a healthy microbiome has been linked to better digestive health, weight management, boosted mood and fewer allergies.
Our gut microbiome changes with factors such as pregnancy, age, environment, stress, diet, and medications each making an impact.
Scientists in the US have been studying the gut microbiome’s role in metabolism, immune defence, mood and behaviour and the huge role your gut plays in overall health is only just beginning to be fully understood.4
Dirt is not the enemy
You may remember being taught to fear catching germs as a young child.
Perhaps you listened, or perhaps you were one of those adventurous babies who was caught trying to sneak soil into your mouth while playing in the garden!
Well, there may have been logic in this after all, as scientists now believe that exposure to dirt and germs in infancy is vital when it comes to building a healthy immune system, as the body must learn which microbes are harmful and which are benign.
There is strong evidence that lack of exposure to germs in infancy could increase the risk of health problems such as colitis and allergic asthma.5
Too much of a good thing?
Many of us use products such as hand sanitisers in an effort to stay healthy and germ-free.
However, these products do not discriminate and destroy our ‘good’ bacteria along with the ‘bad’, which can end up compromising our immunity defences.
Being deprived of exposure to common bugs leads to a weakened immune system, which can then go into ‘defence mode’, triggering an inflammatory response when faced with even the most harmless of microbes.
Excessively disinfected environments caused by hand sanitisers and the over-use of anti-bacterial household sprays have been linked to the increase of conditions such as asthma and inflammatory bowel disease over recent years.6
Of course, it is sensible to practise good hygiene such as washing your hands before meals and after a visit to the bathroom to protect ourselves from potentially dangerous germs.
However, excessive use of anti-bacterial products can be detrimental to your body’s immune response.
What is a healthy microbiome?
A healthy microbiome is one that benefits the body and helps it function as normal.
What are the benefits of a healthy microbiome? 7 of the best
Here are some of the most important benefits that a healthy microbiome can help provide:
Immune system support
A healthy microbiome can help to stimulate the immune system and keep us defended against harmful pathogens and other harmful organisms.
For example, a healthy balance of microorganisms in the gut can help protect us from pathogenic organisms in contaminated food and water.
Certain microbes like Peptostreptococcus, Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Clostridium can be found in the colon and are believed help prevent the overgrowth of harmful bacteria.7
They do this by competing for nutrients and attachment sites in the gut, which is highly influential to our immunity.8
Vitamin and amino acid synthesis
Some vitamins and amino acids can only be synthesised with enzymes found in microorganisms, like B vitamins and vitamin K.9
Simple sugars like the sugar in milk (lactose) and cane sugar are absorbed by the upper part of the small intestine quickly and easily.
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates like wholemeal products and starchy vegetables are harder to digest (in a good way!) and may travel lower to the large intestine before they are absorbed.
When they get there, a healthy microbiome will help to break down these complex carbohydrates with digestive enzymes.
The gut microbiota can also help ferment indigestible fibre to help the body produce short chain fatty acids, which get used as a nutrient source by the body and play an important role in muscle function, amongst other benefits.10
May help control blood sugar
Gut microbiome could help our bodies control blood sugar, which could reduce the risk of diabetes.
One 2015 study on 33 infants genetically predisposed to type one diabetes found that the onset of type one diabetes correlated with a drop in microbiome diversity.
Some unhealthy bacterial species also increased before the infants developed this condition.11
May support brain function
Our gut is physically connected to the brain via nerves and also helps to make brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, like serotonin, that can help to regulate sleep and mood.12,13
Ever-accumulating data and research has revealed the connection between gut microbiota and the central nervous system, which is already known to influence brain behaviour and function.14
May support heart health
Some microorganisms in the microbiome have been found to help manage cholesterol levels, which is essential for heart health.
One study conducted in 2015 found that gut microbiome may play an important role in maintaining healthy blood cholesterol levels by promoting ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and triglycerides independent of age, sex and genetics.15
May influence gut health
There is research to suggest that a variety of diseases related to the gut, like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be affected positively by a healthily balanced microbiome.16,17
How can I improve my microbiome?
There are many ways you can support your body’s microbiome, from your diet and your surroundings, to the medication you take and if you take any vitamins. Interested in finding out a little more about this? Keep reading for added details.
How to support a healthy microbiome: 5 ways
There are many ways to support your gut microbiome, here are 5 of the best.
As a lot of your microbiota live in your gut, it makes sense that everything that we eat and drink has a significant effect on our microbiome.
How can I feed my gut microbiome?
Eating a diverse diet rich in fruit, vegetables and fibrous foods is a great way to feed the good bacteria in your gut and help keep it in balance.
Don’t worry too much about disinfecting every surface in your home, as exposure to everyday dirt is important in ensuring your immune system is firing on all cylinders.
Take antibiotics only when recommended by your doctor, as these can wipe out your population of friendly bacteria along with your infection.
Wash your hands with soap and water after visiting the bathroom, and before preparing food.
Let children play outdoors and get muddy. This will ensure they develop a strong immune system which will benefit their health enormously as they grow up.
Handpicked content: Improve gut health with a microbiome diet
What foods are good for the microbiome?
Read on to find out what foods are good for the microbiome...
A bit of everything
Variety is the spice of life; If the food we eat is diverse, it can also help our microbiome become diverse.
Researchers believe that a varied microbiome-friendly diet can help to create an gut environment that’s better equipped to deal with harmful bacteria.19
Try and pack in as many different healthy foods as possible into your daily diet to not only support your microbiome, but to also support your overall health.
Prebiotic foods are sources of dietary fibre that the bacteria and other microbes in our gut like to feed on.
Think of them as the compost and fertilisers you would add to your garden to help your plants grow strong and healthy – except we’re talking friendly bacteria here, not roses!
Not all fibre-rich foods can be classes as prebiotics, but most prebiotics can be classified as dietary fibres.20
Here are some examples:
- Legumes, e.g. beans, lentils, chickpeas
- Wholegrain products
- Wheat bran
Ah, wholegrains – all the fun and taste of refined carbs but with tons of extra benefits, especially when it comes to our microbiome.
Wholegrains fall into the prebiotic category. They are full of heart- and gut-healthy fibre that supports digestion, as well as essential vitamins and minerals like B vitamins and zinc.
Research also suggests that wholegrains can have positive effects of our microbiome.
A systematic review of 40 studies on the effects of wholegrains on the gut microbiome suggests that eating them can increase both microbiota diversity and abundance – 2 key indicators of a healthy and balanced microbiome.21
Popular wholegrain foods include:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur wheat
- Wholemeal bread
- Wholegrain pasta
- Wheat bran
It’s quite easy to swap refined carbs like white bread, pasta and rice for some of the grains above, and your gut will be sure to thank you later!
Vegan and vegetarian diets are full of fibre (which our microbiota love) and also appear to promote more stable and diverse microbiomes when compared to a typical omnivorous diet.22
First of all, fibre only comes from plant-based food and most consistently increase lactic acid bacteria in whoever eats them.23
Multiple studies have found that microbial diversity correlates positively with protein consumption.24
However, a diet high in animal protein, has been seen to have lower bacteria abundance than a diet high in plant-derived proteins like pea protein.25,26
This may have something to do with the fact that high-protein diets based around animal-derived protein e.g. beef, will have significantly less carbohydrates and fibre compared to a high-protein plant-based diet which tends to be more carbohydrate- and fibre-rich.27
Fermented foods (or probiotic foods) that promote good bacteria in our gut include fermented products such as sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, and probiotic yoghurts.
These foods help prevent gastrointestinal disorders.28
Yoghurt, kimchi, kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut are some of the most popular fermented foods and drinks that could help support your microbiome.
They all contain healthy bacteria, which is made during the fermentation process, that can help introduce and strengthen different bacteria in the gut, as well as help reduce more harmful species.29
Just make sure to choose unpasteurised versions as pasteurisation kills the natural bacteria.
Foods containing polyphenols
Polyphenols are micronutrients in some plant-based foods and drinks.
They are packed full of antioxidants and can help to increase the abundance of friendly bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
These bacteria have been seen to have anti-inflammatory effects (like antioxidants) and support heart health.30
You can find polyphenols in some plant-based foods like:
- Cocoa products
One found that even drinking cocoa-based drinks could positively affect the growth of some bacteria in humans.
The results revealed that the group drinking a high-cocoa flavanol drink for 4 weeks has a significantly higher abundance of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus in their faeces, compared to the group drinking a low-cocoa flavanol drink.31
If you have a baby, one of the best things you can do for their developing microbiome is breastfeeding them for at least 6 months.
This will be one of the first and most important substances they digest and will help set up their microbiome for the rest of their lives.
One study found that children who has been breastfed for a minimum of 6 months had higher levels of the beneficial bacteria Bifidobacteria than infants who were bottle-fed a milk formula.32
Probiotic supplements contain cultures of live bacteria intended to replenish levels in the gut that may have dwindled due to illnesses or treatments like antibiotics.
The NHS advises that there is some evidence that probiotics could help to help ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and prevent diarrhoea when taking antibiotics.33
They can be an easy way to ‘top up’ on friendly bacteria like strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Only taking antibiotics when medically necessary
There has been a shift away from the routine use of antibiotics to treat infections for a number of reasons, including antibiotic resistance.
This is when strains of bacteria develop resistance to many different types of antibiotics and gain ‘superbug’ status, which make them increasingly hard to treat and ultimately dangerous.34
Your microbiome may also be affected by overuse of antibiotics when they are not needed, as they do not differentiate between ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ bacteria in the gut and kill everything.
Always follow the advice of your GP when receiving treatment for illnesses and infections.
Keep your vitamins topped up
Vitamins and other macronutrients are essential for the healthy function of our bodies, including our gut – and they could influence our microbiome, too.
When we eat vitamin-rich food, bacteria in the gut synthesise those vitamins to feed themselves and any they don’t use, they excrete and return to us.
In fact, some gut bacteria secrete vitamin B12 and vitamin K to help us reach our daily goals.
The final say
Your microbiome plays a very important role in your overall health, from promoting healthy gut activity to supporting your immune system and helping you to get the most from your food.
Your diet is one of the most integral aspects to get right if you want to keep all of those bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms healthy and flourishing.
Try to eat a varied diet of food, including lots of fibre-rich wholegrain foods, fermented foods, and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Consider taking a probiotic supplement to help replenish your microbiome if you have been taking courses of antibiotics recently.
Interested in finding out more about your gut? Check out our ultimate guide for a happy and healthy gut today.
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Last updated: 2 February 2022
- Enders, Gulia. Gut. London : Scribe, 2015.