How Lifestyle Influences Gut Health and the Microbiome

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How lifestyle influences our gut health

This article will examine the incredibly important impact lifestyle has on our gut health.

Many people mistakenly believe our digestive health depends solely on diet and things like fermented food.

However, this is only one way to which we affect our microbiome.

What is the Microbiome?

How lifestyle affects gut health - microbiome

The average human gut contains approximately 1kg of bacteria (1).

In short, this bacteria is a collection of millions of microbes that live inside our gut. Collectively these microbes answer to the name of ‘the microbiome.’

Of course, this beneficial bacteria has a job to do, and it plays a significant role in our overall health.

Some of the primary duties of our gut microbes include:

  • Assisting with digestion and processing food
  • Helping manufacture vitamins
  • Protecting against harmful bacteria (pathogens)

Why is Our Microbiome and ‘Good Bacteria’ Important?

How we influence our gut health - bacteria

Have you ever heard about gene expression?

Generally speaking, a large sector of people still believe that our health is down to genes and luck.

They think our genes predetermine our life, and we can only hope for the best.

In truth, how we live our life plays a significant role in gene expression and determines activation of the ‘on switch’ for these genes (2, 3, 4).

Put simply; just because someone has an individual cancer gene, doesn’t mean that it will be turned on.

While gut bacteria and health are a newly emerging field, some recent research is showing that our microbiome can directly influence gene expression.

As a matter of fact, the health of our microbiome has links with susceptibility to cancer, heart disease, dementia and diabetes (5, 6, 7).

Also, close ties exist between the microbiome and mental health. Having a well-balanced community of good bacteria in our gut may, therefore, protect against anxiety and depression (8).

Equally important is the connection between the microbiome and allergies/asthma.

Researchers believe that a diverse microbiota has a strong influence here, and that early exposure to a range of helpful bacteria reduces childhood risk (9, 10).

How Can We Improve Our Gut Health?

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There are several ways in which we can support the beneficial bacteria in our gut.

Maybe you already know the benefits of fermented food, but several other lifestyle factors influence our microbiome too.

As well as what we eat, the following things are important:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Stress
  • Antibiotics
  • Exposure to toxins

Let’s take a look at each of these topics and how they impact our gut health.

Sleep Directly and Indirectly Influences Gut Health

How can we influence our gut health - sleep

Getting enough sleep is important to allow our body proper time for rest and repair.

As well as this, chronic lack of sleep has strong associations with disease risk (11, 12, 13, 14, 15).

Particularly relevant to sleep is the human circadian cycle, or how we respond to a 24-hour cycle of light and darkness in our environment.

Circadian cycles (otherwise known as ‘the human body clock’) have a strong influence on health.

As it happens, evidence exists showing poorly organized sleep cycles adversely impact our gut health via altering the microbiota (16).

Could this be a link between how poor sleep affects obesity and disease risk?

Further, lack of sleep increases cravings for junk food such as refined carbohydrates and sugar (17, 18).

Hence sleep deprivation may cause an increased consumption of these foods.

As refined carbohydrates are known to feed harmful bacteria, this could indirectly lead to poorer gut health.

Improve Your Gut Health Through Sleep

  • Try to adopt a regular sleeping pattern and stick to it.
  • Instead of reading one more article, or watching one more episode – just go to bed! You can do it the next day.
  • Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep per day.

Exercise Improves Gut Health

How we can influence our gut health - exercise

Exercise is another important consideration in our repertoire for a healthier life.

As exercise has so many health benefits, it should be part of a healthy lifestyle for everyone.

Interestingly, over the past few years, a variety of published studies show how exercise exerts a significant effect on the microbiome.

Looking at the research, it seems that physical activity should be encouraged from an early age if we want optimal gut health for our children.

A recent study showed that daily exercise in the young can stimulate the formation of a more beneficial microbial system (19).

Particularly interesting is one study that presented data on how environmental contaminants can damage the gut microbiome. These detrimental effects are reversed by participation in exercise (20).

More noteworthy findings on exercise and gut health include:

  • Athletes show a significantly greater microbiome diversity than non-athletes (21).
  • Modification of gut microbiota through exercise could be a “powerful tool” in the fight against disease (22).
  • Exercise alters gut immune function and microbiome diversity (23).

Improve your Gut Health Through Exercise

  • Try to do resistance training for 20 minutes or more at least twice a week.
  • Move – a lot! Humans are not sedentary by nature, and you should move as much as you can.
  • Walk reasonable distances rather than using your car or taking the train.

Stress

How we can influence our gut health - stress

Everyone knows stress is bad for you. Sometimes, though, the pressures of modern life get too much.

Bills to pay, the miserable boss at work, searching for a new job and more; there are many reasons to feel stressed.

Unfortunately, chronic stress is extremely unhealthy, downregulates the body’s ability to deal with inflammation, and shares links to chronic disease (24, 25).

Due to the release of stress-related hormones, stress can also adversely impacts gut health.

These stress-related hormones induce changes in our intestinal surface and can relocate the beneficial bacteria from where they should be (26).

The net result of this is that we are left more susceptible to infection.

Stress can also have several other effects on the health of our gut.

Some of these include altering the intestinal microbiota, changing gastrointestinal secretions, and increasing intestinal permeability (27).

How Can We Protect Our Gut Health Against Stress?

  • Try not to worry or over-think things too much.
  • Don’t ignore stressors in your life – face them and make a plan of how to deal with them.
  • Carefully consider if something (or someone) in your life is making you unhappy.
  • Take steps to improve your diet and sleep; both of them influence mood and stress.

Everyone has some element of stress in their lives; it’s how we manage it that matters.

Antibiotics Destroy Gut Health & Damage the Microbiome

How we can influence our gut health - antibiotics

While our gut bacteria love to feed on prebiotic foods, there’s one thing they hate; drugs.

As you may know, most drugs have side effects, and one of these side effects is to harm our little bacterial friends.

Especially relevant is the use of antibiotics. This class of medications has a varying range of effects on the microbiome, and none of them are good.

An interesting study analyzed the microbiome of previously uncontacted America Indians. These people had never been exposed to antibiotics.

To sum up, the results showed the highest diversity microbiome ever exhibited by any human group (28).

A further study found that there’s a decrease in microbiome diversity in developed countries compared to hunter-gatherers, or societies wth no access to Western medicine (29).

Equally important, administration of antibiotics appears to damage the cell membranes of gut microbiota cells (30).

Worryingly, a single exposure to antibiotics can change the state of the microbiome for one year. Early-life antibiotic exposures are particularly damaging (31, 32).

All in all, the science is clear.

If you want a healthy gut, minimize antibiotic use unless necessary.

Exposure to Toxins Harms Gut Health

How we can influence our gut health - toxins

Finally, several compounds act as toxins to the bacteria in our gut.

Three of these are as follows:

Artificial Sweeteners

Several studies show that artificial sweeteners cause damage to our gut health.

In tests using saccharin, participants suffered a decline in the balance of good bacteria.

As well as this, their glycemic response worsened, and they exhibited signs of strong dysbiosis (33).

Scarily, artificial sweeteners appear to induce glucose intolerance through their adverse effect on the gut microbiota (34).

Pesticides

Commercial pesticides are another compound that may have significant effects on our gut health.

Studies show that chronic low-dose exposure to pesticides leads to dysbiosis in the subject (35).

In a study investigating the impact of glyphosate on bacterial microbes, all beneficial bacteria had a moderate to high susceptibility to damage from the chemical.

However, highly pathogenic bad bacteria (such as Salmonella) was highly resistant (36).

Proton Pump Inhibitors

Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPI) are another form of medication that affects good bacteria in our gut.

As a result, people taking PPI for conditions such as acid reflux may unknowingly be damaging their gut health.

Most significant is that PPI use is consistently associated with “profound changes” in the gut microbiome of users when compared to non-users (37).

As well as this, further studies show that prolonged use of PPI reduces the diversity of beneficial gut bacteria, and leads to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) (38, 39).

Final Thoughts

The health of our microbiome has a strong influence on our digestion, mood, and immunity.

All things considered, our gut health is essential to our overall well-being.

But the state of our gut very much depends on the lifestyle decisions we each make.

As with most things; a healthy diet full of real food, sufficient sleep, and exercise are essential.

How is your gut health? Have you ever experienced any digestive problems?

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