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By Paula Franken

Learning that trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi live in your intestinal tract might make you just a little bit queasy. But it shouldn’t. These little creatures play a big role in keeping you healthy.

The microbes in your intestines are referred to collectively as the gut microbiome. There are as many as 1,000 different species of bacteria in there — some are crucial for maintaining good health, while others cause disease. So it’s important to make sure the good bacteria in your gut outweigh the bad. How?

By eating a diet that supports microbiome diversity. It should include:

  • Fiber-rich foods: Legumes, beans and fruits
  • Fermented foods: Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir
  • Prebiotic foods: Artichokes, bananas, asparagus, oats and apples
  • Polyphenols: Plant compounds found in green tea, dark chocolate, whole grains, olive oil and red wine

Colorful illustration of good bacteria in the intestinal tract.

Artificial sweeteners stimulate the growth of bad bacteria and can lead to gut dysbiosis — an imbalance of healthy and unhealthy microbes. It’s a good idea to limit them or avoid them completely.

Gut dysbiosis has been linked to intestinal diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Eating yogurt and taking probiotic supplements that contain Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli can help reduce symptoms by introducing more good bacteria into the system.

It makes sense that the gut microbiome would affect your digestive health. But studies show it affects your heart, brain and immune system health, too. And a healthy gut biome can even help control your blood sugar and weight.

The poop on fecal transplants

Antibiotics kill good bacteria along with the bad. You may need them occasionally to fight infection — and in most cases, eating a little yogurt when you do will help protect your microbiome.

But sometimes, antibiotics kill off too many good bacteria, allowing bad bacteria called Clostridium difficile to take over. And too much C. diff leads to fever, diarrhea and cramping. It can be fatal for people with a chronic condition or weak immune system.

Just like a bone marrow transplant infuses your body with healthy cells to replace those that aren’t working right, fecal transplantation can reverse the effects of a depleted microbiome. It involves collecting feces (aka poop) from a healthy adult donor who:

  • Has not taken antibiotics in the past six months
  • Has a strong immune system
  • Is not at risk for infectious diseases
  • Has been carefully screened for:
    • Gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS and IBD
    • Hepatitis
    • HIV
    • Syphilis
    • Intestinal parasites
    • C. difficile

The healthy fecal matter is introduced into the digestive tract of the person with C. diff. The good bacteria grow, eventually outnumbering the unhealthy microbes that were causing disease. It’s an effective and entirely medicine-free solution to a potentially serious condition.

But how is fecal transplantation done?

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a colonoscopy, the process is similar. The prep is the same and the scope is guided through your colon. But as it’s withdrawn, a solution containing donor feces is deposited. Other approaches involve a capsule that can be swallowed or taken as an enema.

Here in Pennsylvania, fecal transplantation is routinely performed at major healthcare systems, says Geisinger gastroenterologist Amitpal Johal, MD. However, due to the COVID pandemic, it’s been restricted to hospitalized patients at Geisinger who meet certain criteria.

Could fecal transplantation help with other conditions? So far, scientific evidence supports using it to combat C. diff, but researchers are looking into whether it might have benefits for things as diverse as IBD, autism and obesity.

But avoiding the need for a fecal transplant in the first place is the best bet for your body. Keep your gut microbiome as healthy as possible by eating right, avoiding artificial sweeteners and only taking antibiotics when absolutely necessary.

Trillions of little critters living in your gut are depending on you — as much as you’re depending on them!

Simulated microscopic image of intestinal microbes.
Feed it well! Your gut microbiome relies on you to keep it happy and healthy.
A delicious tangy yogurt sauce.

Make your gut happy when you make dinner tonight!

Check out this recipe.

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