The gastrointestinal tract in the human body (also called the gut) is responsible for digesting food, absorbing nutrients, and expelling waste. Today, we also know that it contains trillions of microbes, including 4,000 different strains of bacteria–with each strain helping to maintain the body’s immune system and metabolism.
In recent years, science has proven that much of the bacteria within the gut (commonly referred to as the gut microbiome) is actually beneficial and plays a protective role in many different ways. How exactly does the gut microbiome influence the body, and can you do anything to populate your gut with protective bacteria?
Only in the late 1990s did scientists become aware of the existence of the microbiome. Nowadays, scientists recognize that the microbiome is an essential part of the body and influences much of human development. Researchers have found that the microbiome helps us digest food, regulates our immune system, protects against disease-causing bacteria, and even produces vitamins such as vitamin B12, thiamine, riboflavin, and vitamin K. Scientists have even linked abnormalities in the microbiome to the cause of various autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia. One theory surrounding autoimmune conditions and the microbiome is that people who develop a genetic disease inherit the family’s microbiome rather than the disease itself.
Researchers are working on answering a series of important questions on the topic. They wonder how a microbiome establishes itself in a human being, and if it changes over time, and how exactly the microbiome interacts with the human host. Further questions include how the microbiome affects nutrition and immunity to disease, and perhaps the biggest question of all: how can the microbiome be adjusted to improve one’s health?
While scientists don’t know everything about the microbiome, they do know that certain foods can increase the population of gut bacteria with probiotics. Probiotics can be found in foods like yogurt and some cheeses, but particularly in foods that are fermented. Fermented cabbage in the form of kimchi, a Korean dish, and sauerkraut, a German specialty, as well as miso, a Japanese seasoning added to soup, are all rich in probiotics. It appears that cultures from around the world knew of the importance of probiotics even thousands of years ago.
Besides consuming fermented foods, there are other ways to increase the prevalence of probiotics in your gut. Getting enough sleep and exercise is crucial to stimulate the body’s production of gut bacteria, as is eliminating stress from your lifestyle.
The gut microbiome is still being studied in depth and new discoveries are being made every year. It’s a fascinating topic, and we’ll know more about it as research progresses. For now, though, you can make a trip to the grocery store and stock up on sauerkraut.