Take a look at your belly. There is some skin, a layer of adipose tissue (some of us may have more than others), some muscle, and then below all of that are several feet of small and large intestine, all curled up in a mythical food-shoot. Most of us are not sure what kind of magic happens between our mouth and our morning constitutional. We assume, of course, that things happen because the doughnut does not come out looking the same as going in. This is true for most foods, actually. (If it is not true for you, something is not right, or you’re eating too much corn on the cob.)

Within those mysterious tunnels of our bowels, one finds over 100 trillion bacteria cells. For reference, the adult human body has somewhere around 30 trillion. Right now you are walking around with about three pounds of single-celled guests in your belly. Go ahead, look again. Say ‘hello’ to your microbiome.

bi·ome

ˈˌōm/ (noun)

1.) a large naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat, e.g., forest or tundra. Or your gut.

Most of us have heard that we need probiotics and vaguely understand that we’re carrying around a veritable planet of life (and maybe an undigested maraschino cherry or two) within our bellies. But what does all that bacteria do?  It turns out, they do have a purpose. In fact, some microbiome experts are now wondering if humans evolved as a means of supporting and transporting these critters. If your ego is uncomfortable with this theory, you’re not alone.

The bacteria of our gut actually complete a number of digestive processes and support the enzyme activity and production necessary for pretty much every function of homeostasis (life). Studies show certain strains of bacteria perform more specific functions that correlate with health improvements. This is why when you go to the store and try to find a probiotic, you’ll find a “Healthy Gut” blend next to an “Over 50” blend next to a “Keep Your Lady Parts Fresh As An Exotic Flower Garden” blend.

Examples of these functions include: Strains of lactobacillus are shown to protect against influenza, breast cancer, and liver cancer. Other strains prevent tooth decay. Bifida strains are seen in studies to modulate inflammatory response, protect skin against UV damage, lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, inhibit metabolic syndrome, and on and on and on. Aside from all those ‘fringe benefits’ of a healthy microbiome, these little guys are responsible for key functions of our digestion – breaking down foods and fibers, rendering compounds useful, transporting them to the gut lining so they can be absorbed, etc. And yes, keeping those of us inclined to drink dodgy water in the backcountry safe from our poor choices. In fact, it is estimated that 80% of our immune system is built in the gut. One might come to the conclusion that the balance of bacteria in our gut determines the balance of health in our bodies. It does.

Traditionally, we used to consume these bacteria on a regular basis in fermented foods and fertilized foods from our gardens. Both of these sources (rotting and dirt) are rich in the probiotics we colonize. Yet these days we have limited exposure to dirty garden vegetables and fermented foods. Our typical diet is very low in the fibers that feed these bacteria and support their growth.

How do you increase your gut health? Here’s the short list: Eat fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha tea. Drink kefir and those trendy gut-shot things. Garden. Fertilize your garden with happy cow manure. Eat a diet high in inulin and other fibers (Jerusalem artichokes, leafy greens, resistant starches such as cooled rice or potatoes). Take a broad-spectrum probiotic on a regular basis – something with 100 billion count or so. Limit the use of antibiotics where possible. Pretend you are responsible for a planet inside you – because you are – and that little planet is what keeps you disease resistant, alive, and healthy.

If you’ve been snubbing the trend of kombucha, it may just be time to embrace it. Or go full-on hippie and start your own batch. When your friends ask why you have a replica of a pale placenta growing on your shelf, tell them to take a look at their bellies. There is more in there than meets the eye. //

When Ammi Midstokke is not chasing her first love (trails), she is preaching her second (food) as a Nutritional Therapist. She wrote about boutique fitness in March.