The Gut Microbiome, has been called the most important scientific discovery for human healthcare in recent decades. It is slated to hold answers to an immense spectrum of health issues, from digestive disorders to depression, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune conditions and even appetite. Improving your gut health could hold answers to several of your health-related questions.
The gut microbiome, in the simplest terms, refers to the immense colony of microorganisms that live in the gut. These are made up of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Although the term ‘gut’ refers to the microbiome that lives in your intestines, our entire bodies are made up of these organisms. However, the gut hosts the largest majority of these organisms. It is colonized by around 100 trillion bacteria cells, and it can weigh up to two kilograms.
Some researchers go on to say that there are as many microorganisms in our bodies as there are cells. So our own cells are almost outnumbered by these external, living microorganisms. In other words, we are in fact half human and half microbe!
Scientific interest in the microbiome accelerated around 15 years ago with the beginning of metagenomics - which is studying communities of microorganisms without having to isolate each one separately. Scientists today recognize how little they actually know about how the microbiome works. However, inroads are being made rapidly and the gut microbiome is now linked to a host of chronic and autoimmune health conditions. Most recently, research into the gut-brain connection found that gut bacteria even have an influence on personality traits such as neuroticism and conscientiousness.
More than ever, the evidence points to the fact that we live in an intimate symbiotic relationship with our microbiome. What is clear today, is that better gut health and understanding how the gut microbiome works could hold the key to better prevention and treatment of several chronic conditions, autoimmune conditions and can even influence mental well-being.
What is a healthy gut?
Most scientists agree that diversity is the most important feature of a healthy gut. The ideal microbiome has a balance of different kinds of bacteria, without any one dominant type. When any one type of organism dominates, it creates problems in the body (dysbiosis). This imbalance could manifest through digestive issues, weight changes, allergies, and tiredness among others.
How does gut health affect women?
Women, in general, tend to suffer from various kinds of discomfort, which are very often unaddressed, often because they are not intense enough and tend to be ignored, or we tell ourselves that we can live with it. However, many such ‘vague’ yet constant pains reported by many women could be related to their gut health. For example, some of the most common signs of an unhealthy gut or an imbalanced gut microbiota are digestive issues and generalized fatigue.
Hormonal imbalance and Gut Health
Women’s health has a unique relationship to the gut microbiome because of the role played by hormones, most specifically estrogen. The relationship between estrogen metabolism and the gut microbiome is a co-dependent, symbiotic one. When estrogen levels fall, most commonly during perimenopause and post-menopause, women can fall prey to several health conditions that are indirectly influenced by estrogen. These include cardiovascular disease, cancers of the breast and obesity among others.
The gut microbiome plays an important role in the amount of active estrogen available. Called the ‘estrobolome’ , these are the colonies of bacteria present within the gut microbiome that secrete an enzyme, which metabolises estrogen. The bacteria that form the ‘estrobolome’ have an influence on the levels of circulating (active) estrogen in women and vice versa - estrogen has an influence on the environments that support the growth of certain kinds of bacteria.
Scientists are currently studying whether changing the composition of the bacteria in the estrobolome could impact the levels of active estrogen - which could then be used therapeutically to manage several health conditions faced by post-menopausal women.
Similarly, chronic conditions such as PCOS and endometriosis are also benefiting from a renewed focus on the gut microbiota, with treatment options of prebiotics, probiotics being explored.
Other conditions that could be associated with unhealthy/imbalanced gut microbiome
Digestive issues - Stomach issues related to digestion such as feeling bloated, gassy, frequent diarrhea or constipation are common indications of an unhealthy or unbalanced gut microbiome. IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a common digestive disorder that is notoriously difficult to treat owing to a large spectrum of probable causes, has recently benefited from a gut microbiome perspective. Certain treatments that are now being explored involve trying to increase certain kinds of microorganisms/bacteria in IBS sufferers to improve gut health.
Weight changes - Eating less and exercising more are not always the only solutions to changes in weight. Research suggests that the microbiota has a role to play in fat storage and weight gain. Even conditions such as obesity now have links to the kind of bacteria present in the gut, and treatments involving changing the composition of the gut microbiome are being explored.
Autoimmune conditions - The role of gut bacteria in autoimmune disease has also attracted attention, due to changes found in the microbiome of sufferers. The gut microbiome has been found to play a key role in regulating inflammation in the body, and scientists think that clues may be found in the gut barrier being ineffective - the ‘leaky gut’- which can lead to certain substances passing through and causing diseases. However, the consensus around this is not strong, as some scientists believe that the leaky gut could also be a consequence of the disease, rather than the cause of it.
Pathways towards solutions - What can you do?
There are two main ways to correct an imbalance in the gut microbiota - firstly through a change in diet and secondly, through probiotics and prebiotics. A third way is also being explored - changing the microbiome through fecal transplants.
The food we eat plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy gut, by helping feed the beneficial microorganisms in the gut microbiome. Interestingly, there is a big difference in the profile of bacteria found in foods depending on whether they are consumed raw or cooked. Prebiotic foods that contain fibers play a big role in feeding beneficial gut bacteria, and raw versions of garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, bananas, and seaweed contain high amounts of prebiotic fibers. Whole grains like wheat, oats, and barley and most fruits and vegetables are also good sources of prebiotic fibers.
Probiotic foods actually contain the beneficial bacteria that contribute to a balanced microbiome and could help alter an imbalanced microbiome. Examples of probiotic foods include fermented foods like dosa, kefir, yogurt, pickled vegetables, tempeh, kombucha tea, kimchi, miso, and sauerkraut.
When introducing prebiotics and probiotics, it is important to begin gradually to avoid food intolerances or digestive difficulties like flatulence. Eventually, these side effects will disappear.
Taking pre and probiotic supplements could also help in some cases. However, research shows that supplements are more useful in very young or very old individuals whose gut microbiota is still being established. Taking prebiotics and probiotics after a course of antibiotics has also been seen to be helpful and is considered best practice.
By better understanding the relationship between the gut microbiota and its influence on several chronic and even life-threatening diseases, we could be on the brink of a whole new universe of unexplored insights and cures that could hold the key to managing several diseases. The gut microbiome could be used as a therapeutic and preventative tool.
At Miyara Women, we have partnered with a company called Bugspeaks, to offer you a comprehensive gut microbiome profile in the comfort of your home which includes a 12-week nutrition plan and a free consultation with a functional medicine specialist.
With the code "miyarawomen" you can get a 10% discount on the test. Book your test here
If you suffer from an autoimmune disease and want to treat your symptoms beyond medication, then check out the "Healing from within" program by health coach Anindita Guha Maulik Rungta. Get 10% off on the 6-month program by using the reference code MIYARA. Check it out here.
New program starts on Jan 31st, 2022
Disclaimer: Keep in mind that we may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our reviews and comparisons. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice for you
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed belong solely to the content provider. Miyara Women does not undertake any financial/reputational/legal/misrepresentational impact or other
obligations/ liabilities that may arise from the content.
About the author
Rosemary George is a researcher and advocate for women's health. A mother of two boys, she is especially interested in sensitising both men and women to gender equality especially in terms of health. She lives in Geneva, Switzerland.