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Why the Gut Microbiome Is Critical for Overall

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Emerging studies show that overall health—from immune function to mental well-being—begins with our microbiome.

The old adage that we are what we eat originated with French lawyer Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who coined the term in 1826 in Physiologie du goût, ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante. (“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”)

What Savarin almost certainly didn’t realize at the time is that what we are—our physical and mental well-being—can be traced specifically to the gut microbiome, or trillions of microorganisms, fungi and viruses living in our intestines and skin. “We are just starting to scratch the surface of what role the microbiome plays in our bodies,” says Michael Bass, M.D., a partner at GI Specialists of Delaware in Wilmington. “Recent studies have shown the microbiome can affect everything from bowel function to mental health. It plays a role in obesity, depression, autism and heart disease, among other [conditions].”

Fun Fact
“The gut microbiome is highly involved in the immune response. Studies show that people with a healthy gut microbiome have a better response to vaccination.”
—Michael Bass, M.D.

A syndrome called leaky gut—microscopic holes that develop in the intestinal walls, allowing toxins to leak into the bloodstream—is manifesting in increasing numbers due to declining microbiome health.

healthy gut microbiome

Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and cabbage contain probiotics—live, active cultures that help increase good bacteria in the gut. Photo Adobe Stock.

So what’s the actual culprit? The bacteria living in our gut. If certain “bad” bacteria proliferate and grow, they can increase the body’s inflammatory response, Bass explains. This proliferation can lead to many of the aforementioned conditions, as well as diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s and colon cancer, studies suggest. Conversely, “good” bacteria in the gut have been linked to healthier bodies and minds.

The key is to boost these good bacteria while mitigating the overgrowth of bad bacteria. But how do we do that? Let’s first look at how and when the microbiome forms.

It begins at birth

Eun Kim, M.D., a functional medicine doctor and partner at Total Integrative Health in Greenville, says the microbiome begins to form in utero. “How gut bacteria develops is not entirely known,” she concedes. “But we’re basically born with a certain amount—it’s partly genetic, and there’s also the maternal component.”

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