December 2022

How your gut microbiome can support your well-being

4 min read

You are not alone in your body. Your body is home to a community of 39 trillion microbial cells including bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on and in us. Collectively, these trillions of microbial cells constitute our individual microbiome. Bacteria alone account for 50% of your total cell count. The majority of these microbes live in your gastrointestinal tract, but many others can be found in places as diverse as your mouth, skin, and armpits, each with its own microbiome.

Our microbiome starts forming at birth, with three-quarters of our microbiome being traced back to our mothers. When we are born, we come in contact with microbes in the vaginal canal if we were born vaginally or on the skin if we were born through a C-section delivery. As we grow up, our surrounding environment — family, pets, the ground we play on outside and floors inside, any plants we come in contact with — continues to enrich the biodiversity of our microbiome. They survive a hostile environment of darkness, high acidity and low oxygen, in what is a tumultuous river constantly flushing through our stomachs and intestines.

Most of the bacteria in our gut are harmless and many are even beneficial. Our gut microbiome plays a complex and important role in helping us not only survive but thrive. Here are 3 ways in which the gut microbiome helps us everyday:

  1. They protect us - Trillions of these beneficial bacteria live on the epithelial wall of our gut and help maintain the gut barrier integrity, making it difficult for harmful bacteria to penetrate and colonise our gut. Bacteria also produce butyrate, which strengthens the protective intestinal mucosa and has anti-inflammatory effects.
  2. They help us digest - Beneficial bacteria help maintain an acidic environment in our gut and produce molecules that stimulate intestinal muscle contractions helpful in bowel movements. Some bacteria can help digest food we otherwise couldn’t, such as fibre.
  3. They provide vitamins - Bacteria synthesise essential B vitamins and vitamin K. B vitamins are involved in energy production, the synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters, and the maintenance of healthy skin, hair, and eyes. They also help to support the immune system and protect against cell damage. Vitamin K helps maintain the body's normal blood clotting function and promotes healthy bones.

The gut microbiome and mental health

While it may seem like there is no direct connection between the digestive tract and the brain, there is a strong gut-brain connection. The gut has an estimated 500 million neurons, which help it communicate to the brain via the vagus nerve. The microbiome produces chemicals that can impact your mood and mental health by interacting with signalling in your brain. For example, serotonin, the happiness neurotransmitter, can help support moods associated with positive feelings. Your gut microbiome produces around 90% of the amount of the serotonin in your body. In other words, a healthy gut microbiome can support better mood. An unhealthy gut microbiome may negatively impact mental health, mood and stress levels.

An increase in the harmful gut bacteria can lead to an increase in levels of harmful chemicals produced by the gut microbiome. These chemicals can “leak” from the gut into the body resulting in a “leaky gut”. Researchers have observed a connection between leaky gut and inflammation that can be associated with mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Probiotics have been shown to restore normal microbial balance, and therefore have a potential role in the treatment and prevention of mental health disorders.

5 ways to support a healthy gut microbiome

Your microbiome is unique to you and it is constantly changing. We ingest around a million microbes alone in every gram of food. This makes our diet the biggest factor that impacts which species thrive in our gut. When your diet changes, the gut bacteria changes too.

Here are 5 ways to support a healthy gut microbiome:

  1. Eat a varied diet that includes plenty of fibre-rich plant foods: The types of bacteria in your gut microbiome are influenced by the types of foods you eat. A diet that is rich in fibre from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
  2. Eat fermented foods: Fermented foods, such as yoghourt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi, contain live bacteria that can help to diversify and improve the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome.
  3. Limit your intake of processed and sugary foods: Processed and sugary foods can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome and promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Limiting your intake of these types of foods may help to improve the health of your gut microbiome.
  4. Get enough sleep: Adequate sleep is important for overall health, and it may also play a role in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.
  5. Consider taking a probiotic supplement: Probiotics are live bacteria that are similar to the beneficial bacteria found in the human gut microbiome. They can be taken in the form of supplements or found in certain foods. Some studies have shown that taking a probiotic supplement can help to improve the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome. However, it is important to speak to your GP or clinician before starting any new supplement.

A  healthy gut microbiome can be supported by improving sleep quality and hormone levels. You can achieve this through an actionable and flexible well-being routine. It’s important to have a stress management toolkit which consists of different relaxation techniques and resources that you can use depending on the situation or season. Your capacity to re-establish equilibrium and recover from stress can have an impact on your mental health, disposition, and energy levels. At Harper, we understand the value of a practical and flexible stress management toolkit that supports well-being and we are here to support you — backed by science. Our Plans can provide you with an actionable well-being routine while our Coaches are here to support, understand and be an accountability buddy for each step of your journey.

Sign up to our email newsletter

Stay up to date with all things Harper

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.