What are Gut Flora and Why Should We Care?

Did you know there are more than 100 trillion microorganisms living in your intestines? That’s not a typo – 100 trillion tiny organisms take up residence in your guts. That’s about 10 times more bacteria than there are human cells in our bodies. There are somewhere between 300 and 1000 unique species of bacteria living in our gut, with most estimates sitting around 500. What’s more, they’re meant to be there, and even help keep you healthy. We’ve known about the existence of gut flora for a very long time – Louis Pasteur actually discovered them in the 1800s. However, we’re still only starting to understand the role of these enteric bacteria, known as “gut flora.” We do know a few things, though.

Human E.coli, a gut flora that can help produce Vitamin K.
E.coli, a gut flora, can help produce Vitamin K.

One important task the gut flora takes on is training and building the immune system. These bacteria help promote early development, both physically and functionally, and continue assisting as we age. They can also help balance our reactions to things like allergies.

What else does our gut flora do?

  • Helps metabolize food, vitamins, and ions like magnesium and calcium
  • Helps absorb and break down undigested carbohydrates. Since we cannot digest certain fibers, starches, and sugars, these little guys can help us get these out of our systems, frequently resulting in flatulence.
  • Keep other, less friendly microbes from colonizing our guts. When potentially harmful yeast or bacteria tries to settle into the intestines, the gut flora prevents them from growing through competitive exclusion. This is known as the “barrier effect.” Just think of your gut flora as the army that protects your digestive tract from invaders!

That’s just a short list; the gut flora also plays a role in preventing tooth decay, creating B12, regulating our mood, and so much more. Interestingly, we’ve also recently learned that the gut flora also has an impact on the development of our brain, and how we react to various things. An international team of researchers found in 2011 that the gut flora have a direct influence over our levels of anxiety, and can even impact how active we are in our daily lives.

Learn about the digestive tract with this detailed poster.
Learn about the digestive tract with this detailed poster.

Obviously, our gut flora is very important to our health. While scientists have found that individuals can survive without it, they are subject to many more infections. How can we best take care of our tiny friends? Research seems to encourage less meat, dairy, and high fat foods for gut health. Studies have indicated that the structure of gut flora can alter very quickly with diet changes, and that a diet with a more moderate intake of meats and cheeses and more fiber can help keep gut flora happy and healthy. Fibers such as beans, bananas, and oats can be especially beneficial, as can root vegetables and nuts. Eating healthy fermented foods, like yogurt and sauerkraut, can also help gut flora flourish.

Curious about your own gut flora? For a fee, the American Gut Project will take several samples, from your skin, mouth, and feces, and break down your microbial makeup.

Sources & Further Reading:

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