Picture, in your mind, a steamy tropical jungle. Imagine all the different forms of life inhabiting this ecosystem. From plants to animals to insects and beyond, a seemingly quiet and serene setting is secretly teeming with life. The same is true of your digestive tract. The term gut flora refers to the ecosystem of microscopic organisms that live within our stomach and intestines.
There are other areas of the human body containing intermingling species of bacteria, but none can compare to the gut and especially the colon. It may be slightly unnerving to think about all of these living microbiota existing within our organs, but it’s a very natural thing. And rest assured, the majority of these microscopic organisms play helpful and beneficial roles within the digestive process. These organisms can help us break down food, eliminate toxins and maintain gut health.
However, not all bacteria are good bacteria. And increasingly the scientific community is coming to understand that different compositions of these complex communities can affect many health factors. It can also play a significant role in weight management, or issues relating to it.
What Organisms Live in my Gut?
The specific makeup of this ecosystem can vary from one individual to another. In fact, even within one person, it can change over time. Aging, shifting diet habits and traveling can all lead to changes in the tiny organisms living within the digestive system.
There are four primary bacterial categories in the gut flora: Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria. By nature, many of these organisms are extremely resilient and capable of surviving extreme conditions, such as the acidic environment within the stomach. Nearly all of these bacteria are anaerobes, meaning they do not require oxygen to survive.
What Do These Microbiota Do?
Each different strain plays its own role. Many of them play critical roles in the core functions of our digestive system. For instance, Bacteriodes — one of the most abundant species in the gut flora — help break down carbohydrates. This is important for metabolism and managing weight. Another type of microbe has unique capabilities to synthesize the amino acid aspartate.
The good bacteria in this ecosystem are also important protectors. Many of them help prevent infection, and can keep harmful bacteria from growing. In general, a diverse and robust gut flora is considered a beneficial thing, conducive to good health.
Promoting Gut Flora Health
There are steps you can take to help ensure your gut flora composition is healthy, and working in favorable ways for you. Eating fermented foods that naturally contain these living organisms (such as certain types of yogurt and milk) is a good step. Many people are turning to probiotic supplements, which strategically contain specific strains that are known to be helpful.
If you find that you’re hitting walls with your weight loss efforts, or you experience inexplicable fatigue and bloating, it’s worth investigating whether your gut flora may be a factor. If so, there are fairly simple steps you can take to address the issue and boost your wellness.