Gut Microbiome, Huh?

My son is 7 years old and his favorite book is the Dr. Seuss classic Horton Hears a Who. Fortunately, I like it too. I can’t count how many times I have read it to him before bed. This is why, while my gastroenterologist was explaining the gut microbiome and its relation to my IBS, all I could think about was the tiny invisible community existing on Horton’s clover.

A biome is a specific environment that’s home to living things suited for that place and climate. A microbiome is simply a biome on a microscopic scale - a community of microorganisms that inhabit a particular environment.

When scientists and doctors refer to the gut microbiome, they mean the vast number of bacterial cells within the gut. There are about 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut, and it is estimated that all of this gut bacteria can weigh up to 4 pounds.

At first, this seems kind of gross. The average person associates bacteria with filth, infections and germs. However, 85% of the bacteria in a healthy human gut are good bacteria, also known as probiotics, and they are absolutely essential to our health.  

Gut bacteria regulate digestion and metabolism. They extract and make vitamins and other nutrients from food that you eat, and program the body’s immune system. Gut bacteria build and maintain the gut wall, which protects the body from outside invaders. By their very presence, beneficial bacteria in the gut block harmful microbes from setting up camp, and also produce anti-microbial chemicals that defend the host against pathogens.

The microbiome isn’t all probiotics, however. A healthy gut will always have some bad bacteria in it, ideally about 15%. A balance of good and bad bacteria is the key to maintaining a healthy gut. When the percentage of bad bacteria begins to climb over 15%, the microbiome becomes imbalanced. This is known as dysbiosis, and it can have serious consequences both physically and mentally.  

It is relatively easy for bad bacteria to begin to take over the gut microbiome. Bad bacteria are literally everywhere. They are on every surface that we touch, every person that we encounter and every bite of food that we eat. In addition, prescription antibiotics can kill good, as well as bad, bacteria. 

Inevitably some bad bacteria end up in our digestive system. If there aren’t sufficient probiotics to control it, bad bacteria can cause a host of physical problems. Many of these gut problems are specific to women. Constipation, diarrhea, anemia, osteoporosis, obesity and chronic bladder infections are just a few of the physical symptoms that result when the gut microbiome becomes imbalanced.

In addition to affecting us physically, scientists are discovering that the gut microbiome impacts us mentally as well. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), gut bacteria produce an array of neurochemicals that the brain uses for regulation of physiological and mental processes, including memory, learning and mood.  In fact, 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin and 50% of the body’s dopamine are produced by gut bacteria.

If the gut is unable to produce these neurochemicals effectively, mental problems, including sleeplessness, fatigue, forgetfulness, lack of motivation and anger, may result.

Like many women, I have suffered with IBS symptoms for years. Until recently, most of the doctors who I consulted told me that it was “all in my head” or just “wait for it to go away”. Today was the first time that a doctor explained IBS to me in a way that totally made sense. Clearly, I need to begin eating much healthier and taking a probiotic supplement. My gastroenterologist told me that it may take some time to heal my gut microbiome, but it will happen if I diligently take care of it. In the meantime, she suggested IBS/W which is an over-the-counter product specifically designed to ease women’s IBS symptoms. I have been taking one every day and it really works. 

On the way home from my appointment, I thought about my microbiome and the microscopic community in my gut. I have to nurture it in order to control my IBS. Much like Horton and his beloved clover, I can’t see this tiny world, but I know that it’s there and plan to take very good care of it.