October 7, 2020
Have you ever gazed into a crackling campfire, sparks disappearing into the night sky above you, and wondered, Who am I? If you’re like most of us, you’ve searched for answers to this ancient human question in art, love, work, and the depths of experience. But did you know that one clue to who you are, including aspects of your physical and mental well-being, might be found inside your gut?
That’s right. Your gut’s microbiome - composed of the more than 100 trillion microbes that populate your intestinal tract - is as unique as your fingerprint. Deep within the 25 feet of your intestines, your microbiome is working to defend you against pathogens and absorb the vitamins and amino acids that you consume. Immune cells learn to mobilize in the gut, and it’s home to more than 20 varieties of hormones.
The gut is also our largest sensory organ, with a surface area 40 times that of our skin! One of its central functions is to gather information for the brain, communicating that we’re getting enough nutrients, how our immune cells are functioning, and what our hormones are up to.
The importance of maintaining the health of this exquisitely sophisticated organ and its resident microbiome is clear. But what exactly do we mean by a “healthy” gut? A healthy gut contains a diverse population of microbes, creating a balance of beneficial and “bad” bacteria. The presence of some “bad” bacteria helps the immune system recognize which microbes to fight.
In an unbalanced microbiome, “bad” bacteria - the pathogenic kind that can cause infections or give us food poisoning - flourish. This triggers a response from the immune system - get those bad bacteria out! - and results in increased inflammation which has been linked to depression. Although the exact nature of the relationship between inflammation and depression isn’t yet fully understood, studies suggest that a balanced microbiome may help create the conditions for a healthy symbiotic relationship between our gut and our mind.
The gut is an ecosystem whose complexity continues to emerge. Having a healthy gut means having enough good bacteria, along with a scattering of “bad.” In other words, rather than trying to eliminate the bad, the way to achieve gut health is to faithfully tend the good. So what can we do to nourish our hard-working gut? Probiotic-rich foods like raw kombucha, kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut feed the beneficial bacteria in the microbiome and help maintain its balance. Accepting the bad with the good doesn't just help sustain us during difficult times. It also helps us keep our guts healthy!