Your gut is home to an estimated 100 trillion microorganisms. They include bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoans, amoebas, and their genetic information. Collectively this is known as your microbiome, a type of ecosystem — much like a rainforest with trillions of living creatures. But a garden is an excellent analogy, too, and probably more relatable.
When you first start a garden, it’s just a plot of dirt. You must plant the seeds, water, and fertilize them, make sure they get the right amount of sunlight and an ideal temperature. Once things start blooming, there’s more feeding, watering, and a little bit of weeding to keep everything healthy and looking beautiful.
But have you ever left a beautiful flowering garden for a while you’re on vacation or just too busy? Within a few short weeks, flowers can start to struggle, and weeds start to grow. The longer the garden is neglected, the worse things get. Eventually, your garden is sad, suffering, unhealthy, and in need of some serious attention.
The same thing happens in your gut if you don’t nurture the trillions of bacteria and microorganisms living there.
Your microbiome starts to develop even before you are born. The way you are delivered (vaginally vs caesarian), the foods you eat, the pollutants and chemicals you are exposed to, and even where you live all help shape the structure of your microbiome throughout your life.1
Healthy people have a very diverse microbiome, with many different microorganisms living and working together. Most of the microorganisms are friendly and beneficial. They do a great job of keeping the unfriendly organisms out of your gut or in their place.
But, just like a garden, your microbiome can change over time.
What Causes Changes to the Microbiome?
Various things can disrupt the balance of microbes in your gut. That might cause healthy bacteria to die off and unfriendly bacteria and other microbes to take over. Eventually, your microbiome becomes unbalanced and less diverse.
That state of imbalance in your microbiome is called dysbiosis. Scientists believe it might be at the root of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
For example, they’ve noticed that over 70% of people with IBS have dysbiosis. However, on average, only about 16% of healthy people have dysbiosis.(3)
Changes in your microbiome that lead to dysbiosis happen for many reasons, including: (1,2)
- Not eating a wide range of foods – A diet consisting of lots of different whole plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can lead to a more diverse gut flora. Western diets generally lack high-fiber plant foods and contain too many processed foods, which discourages microbiome health and diversity.
- A bad gastrointestinal infection – Food poisoning can disrupt the gut microbiome and trigger persistent health effects, namely a specific form of IBS called post-infectious IBS. Research has linked this illness with food poisonings caused by E. Coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. In one study, 10% of those that experienced a bacterial infection reported symptoms up to 10 years after the foodborne illness incident.
- Chronic stress – Excess stress has been shown to reduce microbial diversity and increase harmful bacteria like Clostridium while reducing beneficial bacteria like Lactobacilli.
- Certain medications (including antibiotics, laxatives, heartburn medications, etc.) – These medications can affect the diversity and composition of your gut flora, even with short-term use. This can have harmful effects on gut bacteria that may last for as long as two years.
- Cigarette smoking – Smoking has harmful effects on nearly every organ in your body. It’s also one of the most important environmental risk factors for inflammatory bowel disease, a disease characterized by ongoing inflammation of the digestive tract. Giving up smoking can improve gut health by increasing the diversity of the gut flora, and this can occur after only nine weeks.
- Drinking too much alcohol – Chronic alcohol consumption can lead to dysbiosis, where the unfriendly bacteria take over.
- Exposure to environmental toxins like air pollution, xenobiotics, pesticides, mold, or heavy metals – These environmental chemicals cause structural and functional changes in the gut microbiome, leading to changes in microbial health and diversity.
- Poor sleep quality or a disruption in your circadian rhythm (like when you fly and change time zones) – It appears that the gut also follows a daily circadian-like rhythm. Disrupting your body clock through a lack of sleep, shift work and eating late at night may have harmful effects on your gut bacteria. In fact, it has been shown that sleep deprivation causes subtle changes to the gut flora and increases the abundance of bacteria associated with weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and fat metabolism.
- Lack of regular physical activity – Regular physical activity promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, including Bifidobacterium and Akkermansia. These positive effects are not seen in individuals who are inactive.
There’s still much to learn about the microbiome and how it influences our health. But preventing or reversing this imbalance between friendly and unfriendly bacteria should be part of everyone’s health goals — especially if you have IBS. Fortunately, your microbiome can change for the better and restoring balance may help manage IBS symptoms.
And the best part is—the changes can happen quickly. Some studies on diet and the microbiome show positive changes begin to occur within a few days. (1) Of course, the more you do to correct the imbalance, the healthier your microbiome will become.
How to Support Your Microbiome
- Make it a point to eat as many “whole” foods and as few packaged foods each day as possible. Start reading food labels like your gut depends on it and step away from those with long ingredient lists and ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce.
- Add more plants to your diet. All fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are excellent choices. The fiber they provide is food for the trillions of tiny lives in your microbiome.
- Carefully review the list of dysbiosis triggers above and see if any apply to you. Use a journal to set some goals to remove a few of these triggers each week. Can you replace them with healthier behaviors? Consider doing yoga for a few minutes each day to manage your stress. Or practice no screen time an hour before bed and see if your sleep quality improves. Maybe switch out your nightly glass of wine for a cup of herbal tea.
- Use a medical food designed for IBS like Ther-Biotic ProTM IBS Relief with IBS DefenseTM to repair and restore your microbiome. This medical food has been specially formulated for the dietary management of IBS, with specific strains of probiotics proven to show benefits for those with IBS. (4) †
Together, these strategies can help rebalance and nourish your microbiome. Over time, your garden will flourish. And that’s one of the biggest steps you can take to manage IBS symptoms.
|† Ther-Biotic® ProTM IBS Relief is a medical food for the dietary management of IBS. It is not a replacement for any medication. Use under medical supervision. A prescription is not required for purchase.
General Notice & Disclaimer: This information has been provided as educational material for use by physicians and other licensed healthcare professionals only; it is to be used as a basis for the development of personalized protocols or recommendations for their patients. The information provided herein is based on a review of current existing research; SFI Health USA does not accept responsibility for the accuracy of the information itself or the consequences from the use or misuse of the information.
- Conlon MA, Bird AR. The impact of diet and lifestyle on gut microbiota and human health. Nutrients. 2014;7(1):17-44. Published 2014 Dec 24. doi:10.3390/nu7010017 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4303825/
- Li Y, Hao Y, Fan F, Zhang B. The Role of Microbiome in Insomnia, Circadian Disturbance and Depression. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:669. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00669. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6290721/pdf/fpsyt-09-00669.pdf
- Chong, P. P. et al. The microbiome and irritable bowel syndrome – A review on the pathophysiology, current research and future therapy. Frontiers in Microbiology vol. 10 (2019).https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2019.01136/full
- Krammer H, Storr M, Madisch A, Riffel J. Treatment of IBS with Lactobacillus plantarum 299v therapeutic success increases with length of treatment-real-life data of a non-interventional study in Germany. Z Gastroenterol. 2021 Feb 8;59(2):125–34.