You have 10 times as many microbial cells in your body as regular cells—and your gut microbiome contains up to 100 times as many genes as the genetic pool inside human cells.
Put another way: Your gut houses about 100 trillion microbes, including about 600 different species of bacteria, several dozen types of yeasts or fungi, and an unknown number of viruses, which we collectively call your gut microbiome.
Our understanding about the gut microbiome is still in its infancy, yet the more we research it, the more we understand how our gut flora play tremendous roles in health and disease.
Symbiosis is a fancy word that means “living in harmony with”; in this case, think of a healthy, balanced gut microbiome that maintains a state of harmony with the rest of your body. Among its many roles, healthy gut flora contribute to production of essential amino acids, neurotransmitters like your feel-good hormone serotonin, and vitamins like vitamins K and B12.
Dysbiosis is the opposite of symbiosis. It means “living out of harmony with”. In other words, your “bad” bugs take over and throw an unwelcome party in your gut.
These microbiome imbalances are linked with numerous diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes (types 1 and 2), allergies, asthma, autism, and cancer.
Everyone always has some bad bugs in their gut, but when too many overpower the good ones, they create these problems and more. Numerous factors contribute to gut imbalances, including a bad diet, chronic stress, constipation, and environmental toxins.
But the No. 1 cause of dysbiosis? Antibiotics. Whether you’ve been on antibiotics once in your lifetime, once a year, or once every few months, this exposure disrupts your gut flora balance. How do you know whether you have too many bad bugs? Well, symptoms of dysbiosis are nonspecific and appear in a variety of conditions.
People who have dysbiosis suffer from issues like recurrent diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, and that “stuffed” feeling after meals. Others get skin conditions like rashes, hives, or numbness in your hands and feet or joint pain are also dysbiosis symptoms.
Dysbiosis becomes a downward spiral for your gut. Eventually it can lead to leaky gut, in which partially digested food proteins and inflammatory signals not intended to get through your gut wall do. As they slip into your bloodstream, your immune system pounces, ramping up inflammation and setting the stage for autoimmune disease.
Luckily, there are a few easy strategies that make healing your gut simple:
- Remove the offenders.
Those include sugar in all its forms (including junk foods, but also “healthy” processed foods and high-fructose fruit) and food sensitivities like dairy and gluten. Studies show gluten sensitivity triggers dysbiosis, brain inflammation, gut-brain dysfunction, and even paves the path for dementia.
- Nourish with the right foods.
We’re talking real, whole, nutrient-rich foods, of course, but also fermented and cultured foods. They support the growth and proliferation of your “good” bacteria. These include cultured foods like yogurt or kefir, fermented foods including sauerkraut and kimchi, and cultured beverages containing favorable live bacteria like kombucha and coconut water kefir.
- Try a digestive enzyme.
The symptoms of digestive enzyme deficiency are extensive when you take into account all of their downstream effects. If you cannot digest your food properly, you’ll suffer dysbiosis and even depression. Try a professional-quality digestive enzyme. If your symptoms improve, you were more than likely deficient in digestive enzymes.
- Manage stress.
Along with antibiotics and a bad diet, researchers link psychological and physical stress with dysbiosis. You can’t eliminate stress, but you can certainly manage it with strategies like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or even walking your dog around the park. Schedule them into your life if you have to, but do them regularly. Your gut and your overall health will thank you.
- Get great sleep.
Studies show disrupted sleep patterns can adversely affect your microbiome. That’s why I recommend patients keep a consistent sleep schedule and get at least seven (but more like eight or nine) hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep every night. Sleep hygiene can help you meet those numbers, as can supplements like melatonin, L-theanine, and inositol powder.
Emerging research shows exercise can enhance the number of beneficial microbial species, enrich the microflora diversity, and improve the development of commensal bacteria. The message is clear: Get out there and move your body. Look for ways to make movement (exercise) exciting and enjoyable. Try to mix it up—find variety in the ways that you move.
- Use the right probiotic.
One supplement that is always helpful is a quality probiotic. Even if you eat plenty of fermented and prebiotic-rich foods (most people don’t), a probiotic supplement can help deliver billions of these healthy bugs to where they’re needed in order to maintain good gut balance. “Probiotics may restore the composition of the gut microbiome and introduce beneficial functions to gut microbial communities, resulting in amelioration or prevention of gut inflammation and other intestinal or systemic disease phenotypes,” researchers in one review noted.