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What is Gut Flora?

Aspects covered:

1.  What is the Gut Microbiome?

2.  How do we obtain a Gut Microbiome?

3.  Types (and composition) of organisms in our Gut Microbiome.

We are more bacteria than we are human – we harbor inside our body more bacteria than we do our own body cells. In an ironic world, our body belongs, not to us but to the bacteria!

However, we have enjoyed this symbiotic relationship from time immemorial. The majority of these bacteria are helpful, some are commensals (they neither harm nor benefit us, they are just here for the ride) and very few are opportunistic pathogens – they would not hesitate to turn their guns on us when the time comes.

So when you ask the question “What is gut flora?” the answer is microorganisms that reside inside our gut (digestive tract). Let us delve into this a bit more.

What Is Gut Flora?

Microorganisms, or microbes, refer to bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microscopic living things. Trillions of microbes reside both internally (in your oral cavity, placenta, vagina, skin, and gastrointestinal tract) as well as externally (on your skin). Most of these microbes reside in your cecum, which is a pouch or a pocket in the peritoneum (the membrane lining the cavity of our abdomen and abdominal organs). The cecum is considered to be the starting point of the large intestine and is located in the right side of your body. The microbes found here are referred to as the gut microbiome

While you have many different types of microbes living inside you, bacteria are the most studied because bacterial cells outnumber the human cells in your body (by far). Indeed, there are roughly only 30 trillion human cells as opposed to 40 trillion bacterial cells in your body, making us more bacteria than human! The total weight of these microbes may be as much as 2 to 5 lbs (1 to 2 kg), which is nearly as much as the weight of your brain! Together, they function as an extra organ in your body and play a decisive role in your health. 

Up to 1,000 species of bacteria live in the human gut microbiome, with each species having specific roles to play. While most of them are extremely important for your health, others may be the cause of various medical conditions.

How do we Obtain a Gut Microbiome?

Your gut begins to populate with bacteria very early in life; indeed, some research suggests this begins while we are still in the womb, whereas others suggest that our gut microbiome originates when passing through the mother’s vagina during the birthing process, a baby is exposed to the mother’s vaginal microorganisms, where the microbiome (which is the genetic material of all microbes). 

When babies are delivered through C-section, the microbiome originates once the baby is exposed to the environment and starts ingesting breast milk, formula and finally food. The gut flora continues to evolve throughout our lifetime.

Once born, there are many components which determine the types of bacteria that will live – and flourish – in your gut, like the genetics and health of your parents, the method of delivery (vaginal or C-section) and if you are breast or bottle-fed. 

There are many things influencing the growth and evolution of your gut flora – such as your genetics, lifestyle and diet.

Gut Health Diet – Foods That Influence Gut Flora

The right diet and eating habits can play a powerful role in building a healthy population of gut microbiome as well. Gut health starts with a healthy gut flora. Probiotics containing ‘friendly bacteria’ are amongst the best sources. Gut health probiotics include yogurt, kefir (fermented milk), miso (fermented soya beans and barley or rice), sauerkraut (fermented chopped cabbage), kimchi (fermented vegetables), sourdough (fermented dough), almonds, olive oil and kombucha (fermented tea drink). That apart, high fiber foods – fruits and vegetables like whole grains, peas, asparagus, plant-based foods, beans, Brussel sprouts, legumes, berries and bananas – are great foods for gut health.

Garlic, ginger, spices, collagen-rich foods (salmon and bone broth) and even alcohol in moderation also influence the build-up of ‘good bacteria’ and help restore gut health. 

Some food groups, on the other hand, need to be consumed in moderation. They include animal protein (excessive consumption might result in inflammatory bowel disease), FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharide, disaccharides, monosaccharides, polyols and processed foods, fruit juices and condiments) which contain simple sugar which may irritate the stomach, and foods containing antibiotics and fried foods. All of these aren’t good for gut health and need to consumed in moderation.

Types of Organisms Found in Gut Microbiome and Their Composition

The human gut microbiota is divided into many groups called phyla.  They consist of mainly 4 main phyla – namely Firmicutes, Bacteriodetes, Actinobacteria and Proteobacteria.

Bacteria commonly found in the human colon and their incidence are captured in the table that follows:

Most of the gut flora in the colon is made up of bacteria, as is 60% of the dry mass of feces. As discussed above, up to 1000 species of bacteria lives in your gut microbiome, although 99% of the bacteria likely comes from about 30 to 40 species only.

Making the necessary dietary and lifestyle changes can help shore up your body’s gut microbiome, upping your immunity and helping you lead a healthier and happier life.

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