Most of us have had at least one run in with a belly-based bug—think stomach flu or food poisoning. But what you might not realize is that within your gut, there are also important, “good-guy” germs. These germs work to not only digest food and absorb nutrients, but can even fight fatigue, depression and weight gain.
“A healthy gut means overall good health,” says Shaheryar Siddiqui, MD, gastroenterologist with Memorial Hermann Medical Group. “Even if someone is otherwise physically fit and eats an apparently healthy diet, the gut’s microbiome may not be optimal and affects the overall health, including weight and wellbeing.”
You don’t have a single gut flora-but a symphony of good guys and bad guys.
Think of your microbiome as the home within your intestines where billions of microscopic bugs thrive. You don’t have a single gut flora (AKA microbiota), but a symphony of good guys and bad guys that play instrumental roles, some harmonizing your health and others disruptively playing off-key.
1. Gut Check. Do you Feel Crummy?
A lack of good gut flora can potentially cause inflammation and chronic disease. It also can ignite chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, asthma and autoimmune disorders such as lupus.
Tummy trouble may be your gut’s way of communicating its distress. Signs include bloating, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal cramps or heartburn (from gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD), Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
“The billions of small bacteria living in our guts play major roles in common gastrointestinal complaints,” Dr. Siddiqui says.
2. An Imbalanced Gut May Make You Gain Weight
“Obesity is a major epidemic in the U.S., and that’s due in part to an unhealthy gut,” Dr. Siddiqui says.
A lack of beneficial bugs alters how nutrition is used within the body, potentially hiking hunger and partially extinguishing metabolism, your inner calorie-burning furnace.
“If you’re watching your diet and exercising yet remain obese, your doctor may need to examine how your gut is working,” he says.
Your family practice or internal medicine physician should be able help. “If not, you need to be referred to a gastroenterologist to improve your quality of life,” adds Dr. Siddiqui.
When diet and soluble fibers mixed with water or juice fail to soften stools, lubricate intestines or stimulate bowel movements, a more extensive workup should be done.
“Prescription medication and colonoscopy go hand in hand,” he says. “You make sure there are no mechanical issues before proceeding with pharmaceuticals.”
3. Stop Some Pill-Popping—Not All
Just because probiotic supplements are widely proclaimed doesn’t mean all are effective.
According to Dr. Siddiqui you should not waste your time on probiotic capsules and the like found outside the fridge. “Probiotics have to be alive to make a difference—and that mostly requires refrigeration,” he says.
Also don’t push your doctor for antibiotics. Yes, they kill bad germs. But they also squash good ones.
Be aware that some medications you need should be taken even though they may contribute to constipation or diarrhea.
“Medications for high blood pressure or cardiac disease put you at a higher risk of developing constipation and other GI issues, but these drugs are lifesavers,” he says. “If you need them, you must take them, no way around it. But there are many ways you can improve your bowel habits to have a normal life even with these medications onboard.”
4. What You Munch Matters
Your diet can be your salvation. Good bugs—such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli—are found not only in yogurt, but also fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled gherkins and fermented veggies and drinks, such as kombucha and kefir.
Foods that promote good germ growth also should be consumed: cranberries, raspberries, asparagus, leeks, lentils, artichokes, broccoli, garlic and onions.
In contrast, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are to be shunned. They’re found to boost blood sugar and to impair insulin response, precursors to diabetes. Such calorie-free sweeteners also hike counts of disease-fueling bad bugs.
“Diet sodas with artificial sweeteners should not be consumed on a daily basis,” he says. “Maybe have one cola, once a week.”