How healthy lifestyles support a unique ecosystem in our guts

Scientists are learning more about the needs of our digestive track.

Oatmeal mixed with yogurt and seeds in a jar.
If you decide to increase your intake of food that contains probiotics, start slowly and ask for guidance from a medical professional as you increase those amounts.

Ecosystems are biological communities consisting of organisms that interact with each other and their physical environments. When we think of ecosystems, we often think about big systems like a forest, but ecosystems can be smaller than that. For example, scientists have discovered that there are miniature ecosystems in tree holes that each has its own unique assemblage of organisms. Could the same be true for humans? Are there tiny ecosystems inside of us? Science says yes. And those tiny ecosystems may be just as important as the larger ones we live in.

Our digestive gut system, which consists of a stomach, small intestine, large intestine and rectum, contains a potpourri of microscopic organisms that interact with each other and everything that passes their way. These include beneficial bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa. Collectively, they are called gut “microbiota,” and the ecosystem they live in is called a “microbiome.” Microbiota have a variety of functions, from breaking down food and toxins to properly eliminating waste, making vitamins, supporting immunity, and assisting brain and behavioral functions. The complexity and importance of microbiomes have been overlooked until now.

Universities nation-wide are now conducting research as part of the National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project. Michigan State University itself has a Center for Microbial Ecology where scientists study microbes in a variety of settings, including our guts. All of this research focuses on a general hypothesis that there is a significant correlation between the microbiome in our bodies and human health and disease. 

What we know so far:

  1. Much of our original microbiota forms at the newborn stage and is unique across human beings.
  2. On a global level, microbiota diversity is decreasing in humans and likely dependent on where and how a person lives.
  3. Human microbiota composition appears to be correlated to human health in many ways.
  4. Diet and lifestyle likely influence a person’s gut microbiota, which in turn affects overall health.

Early data demonstrates the importance of a healthy microbiome for maintaining good health. Research is needed to fully understand the details of those relationships but a person can take some steps right now.

Eating nutritious food, getting outdoors, not using antibiotics unless you need them, as well as breastfeeding, may all support healthy microbiomes

Consider doing these:

  1. Maintain a nutritious diet filled with whole grains, vegetables and fruit – all of which have fiber. Fiber itself is not a microbe, yet it is a critical nutrient for our digestive tract. Its major role is to add water into human feces so that it moves through our gut system in a healthy way, but now science is discovering another very important role of fiber – feeding our microbiota.
  2. Reduce the use of unnecessary antibiotics in both medicinal and hygienic products. In other words, only use antibiotic medicines and antibiotic cleaning products when human health is very dependent on it. This prevents them from killing beneficial bacteria.
  3. Spend time outdoors, especially in green spaces. Spending time in nature increases our exposure to beneficial biochemical and microbes in the environment and provides other numerous health benefits, such as exercise and mental relaxation.
  4. If you are a new mother, breastfeed your baby. MSU Extension supports breastfeeding initiatives that encourage women to breast feed over bottle feeding due to the numerous health benefits. Development of a strong and diverse microbiome is likely to be one of them.

Should I start consuming “gut health” products?

Two decades ago, many food companies began to advertise the health benefits of consuming food that contains “probiotics,” perhaps in response to a greater incidence of chronic digestive issues in the world (e.g., allergies, irritable bowel syndrome). Many of these products (e.g., yogurts) already had probiotics in them, and companies simply began to advertise those ingredients. In other cases, manufacturers began introducing more probiotic products into U.S. markets (e.g., kombucha tea and other fermented products). 

Doctors and veterinarians now frequently expand their medical treatment of a patient or pet by prescribing non-food probiotic supplements in attempt to improve the outcome of traditional treatments; however, research continues to determine how much these products can supplement or stimulate the growth of beneficial microbiota. Nonetheless, food and medicinal products containing probiotics are regulated by the FDA to be safe when used in moderate amounts. Using safe amounts is important because too much a probiotic supplement is not healthy. Doctors who prescribe direct supplements will help you determine that amount. If you decide to increase your intake of food that contains probiotics, start slowly and ask for guidance from a medical professional as you increase those amounts.

New medical research is also examining the use of microbiota transplants (MTs) in patients. One such transplant is called fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), and trials of its use are showing that it can help patients fight bacteria that is resistance to antibiotics. This medical procedure is very new and in need of regulation to determine its overall safety. Possible risks include the transfer of stool-based disease organisms.

Ultimately, the key to fighting an unhealthy gut microbiota may be as simple as adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle. The fiber in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits may be one of those key components since it supports healthy bacteria in our digestive tracts. Having been breastfed as a child and spending time outdoors may also expose us to beneficial bacteria.

Do you want to learn more?

To help people be healthy at every stage of life, Michigan State University Extension delivers affordable, relevant, evidence-based education to serve the needs of adults, youth and families in urban and rural communities.

Our programs cover all areas of health, from buying and preparing nutritious, budget-friendly food to managing stress, preventing or living well with diabetes and optimal aging – MSU Extension has the information you need in a format you can use, in-person and online. Contact your local MSU Extension county office to find a class near you.

Did you find this article useful?