intestinal bacteria
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Helpful Germs

You have many bacteria in your body. In fact, you have more of them than you have cells. Most are good for you. The ones found in your gut not only help you digest foods, they work all over your body and can be good for your physical and mental health. 

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gut microbiome
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Gut Microbiome

This is home base for the bacteria in your digestive tract. Here, they help you break down food and turn nutrients into things your body can use. They stop growing when they run out of food, so you'll only have what you need. 

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good and bad gut bacteria
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Fighting the Good Fight

In the gut microbiome, the “good” bacteria do more than just help with digestion. They help keep your “bad” bacteria in check. They multiply so often that the unhealthy kind don't have space to grow. When you have a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, it’s called equilibrium.  

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ulcerative colitis
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Unhealthy Balance

Studies have found that if you have too much of a certain kind of bad bacteria in your gut microbiome, you're more likely to have:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) 

Researchers are looking into new treatments for them that target the bacteria in the gut microbiome.

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artery clogged with cholesterol
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Gut Bacteria and Your Heart

Some kinds of gut bacteria may be part of the link cholesterol has to heart disease. When you eat foods like red meat or eggs, those bacteria make a chemical that your liver turns into something called TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide). TMAO may help cholesterol build up in your blood vessels. Researchers are studying a natural substance called DMB that’s in olive and grapeseed oil. They think it might keep your bacteria from making TMAO.

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chronic kidney disease
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Gut Bacteria and Your Kidneys

Too much TMAO also may lead to chronic kidney disease. People who have the disease don’t get rid of TMAO like they should. That surplus can lead to heart disease. Researchers think it’s possible that too much TMAO might make you more likely to have chronic kidney disease in the first place.

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active brain
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Gut Bacteria and Your Brain

Your brain sends messages all over your body. Researchers believe your gut may talk back. Studies show that the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome may affect your emotions and the way your brain processes information from your senses, like sights, sounds, flavors, or textures. 
Scientists suspect that changes in that balance may play a role in diseases like autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, and depression, as well as chronic pain. 

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obese woman at the beach
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Gut Bacteria and Obesity

An unhealthy balance in your gut microbiome may cause crossed signals from your brain when it comes to feeling hungry or full. Researchers think there may be a link to the pituitary gland, which makes hormones that help set your appetite. That gland can affect the balance of bacteria in your gut, too. Some studies on treating obesity are exploring this link.

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mother and infant son
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Can You Change Your Gut Bacteria?

You get your gut microbiome from your mother at birth, and the world around you affects it as you grow up. It’s also influenced by what you eat. That’s why it can be different depending on where you live -- and why you may be able to tilt the balance a bit.

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probiotic lactobacillus bacteria
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Probiotics

Found in some foods, these are “good” bacteria like the ones already in your gut. They can add to the bacteria in your intestinal tract and help keep everything in balance. But they’re not all the same. Each type works in its own way and can have different effects on your body.

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woman outdoors with allergies
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How Can Probiotics Help?

They can make your immune system stronger. They may boost gastrointestinal health, too, especially if you have something like irritable bowel syndrome. Some probiotics also may help ease allergy symptoms and help with lactose intolerance. But because our gut microbiomes are unique, if and how they work can be different for everyone.

 
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dairy kimchi pickled vegetables triptych
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Sources of Probiotics

You can find them in dairy products like yogurt and aged cheeses. Look on the ingredients list for live cultures of bacteria like bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. They're also in fermented vegetables, like kimchi and sauerkraut, and pickled vegetables, like onions and gherkins.

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five panel prebiotic foods
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Prebiotics

Think of these as a food source for probiotics. They may help your body take in calcium better and boost the growth of helpful bacteria in your gut.
They’re found in fruits and vegetables, like:

  • Bananas
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Artichokes
  • Soybeans

You can also get them in foods with whole wheat.

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asparagus and tempeh stir fry
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Synbiotics

Probiotics can boost the growth of good bacteria, and prebiotics are good for probiotics. When you combine the two, it’s a synbiotic. The idea behind them is to help probiotics live longer. You can make synbiotic combinations with things like bananas and yogurt or stir-fry asparagus with tempeh. 

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transcranial magnetic stimulation
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Other Ways to Change Gut Bacteria

There may be other ways to change your gut microbiome and treat things tied to its balance. For example, fecal transplants (exactly what it sounds like) change your gut bacteria to treat things like C. diff and ulcerative colitis. Researchers hope deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS) can someday treat obesity. It uses a coil put on the scalp to stimulate the brain and improve gut bacteria. It already treats depression.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 8/15/2018 Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on August 15, 2018

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SOURCES:

UConn Today: “How Bactera Keep Us Healthy.”

Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal: “Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease.”

ACP Microbe Institute: “Microbe Magic,” “The Good Bacteria.”

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Prebiotics and Probiotics: Creating a Healthier You.”

Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation: “Gut Microbiome Points To Cures and Treatment for IBD.”

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: “Gut Bacteria and IBS.”

Cleveland Clinic: “How Gut Bacteria May Help Curb Your Heart Disease.”

University of California, Los Angeles: “Changing Gut Bacteria Through Diet Affects Brain Function, UCLA Study Shows.”

Journal of Neuroscience: “Gut Microbes and the Brain: Paradigm Shift in Neuroscience.”

Endocrine Society: “Magnetic Brain Stimulation Causes Weight Loss By Making Gut Bacteria Healthier.”

Mayo Clinic: “What Are Probiotics?”

Journal of Food Science and Technology: “Probiotics, Prebiotics and Synbiotics -- A Review.”

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on August 15, 2018

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.