10 benefits of gut bacteria

| 1 July 2024
minute reading time
scientists looking at gut model

The gut microbiome is home to trillions of microorganisms found in the gastrointestinal tract – including bacteria, yeast and viruses – known as the gut microbiota. If that’s a little confusing, remember that the microbiome is the environment and the microbiota is the inhabitants.

Everyone’s gut microbiota is unique, like a fingerprint. But, unlike a fingerprint, our gut microbiota is always changing depending on age, our environment and lifestyle, and what we eat. Scientists are only just beginning to discover the amazing properties of these microscopic organisms but it is becoming clearer that these magical microbes have a massive effect on all aspects of our health. Here are 10 functions of the gut microbiota.


1. Reduces inflammation

Our gut bacteria feast on fibre-rich and starchy foods (prebiotics) and produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the process. SCFAs can be used by our intestinal cells for energy but most importantly, they have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. Butyrate is one of them and is particularly beneficial, having been shown to significantly reduce the risk of bowel, liver, lung and bladder cancer. It may be one of the reasons why vegans have much lower rates of some cancers compared to meat-eaters.


2. Supports our immune system

What’s going on in our guts has a big effect on our immune system. A healthy gut means a strong gut wall and healthy immunity. A bad diet and unhealthy lifestyle habits can lead to a weakened gut wall that allows bacteria, larger molecules and toxins into the bloodstream. This may negatively affect our immune system and also trigger autoimmune reactions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. It’s almost impossible to reverse an autoimmune reaction once it happens so the best strategy is to prevent it – and eating a healthy plant-based diet rich in wholefoods is your best bet.


3. Looks after our gut lining

The SCFAs produced by gut bacteria maintain a strong gut barrier. Without this, as mentioned above, bacteria and toxins within your gut would escape into your bloodstream. Some call this ‘leaky gut’, although the science is undecided on whether this is a legitimate medical condition. Our gut lining is supposed to be somewhat permeable, but increased intestinal permeability often occurs in those who have Crohn’s disease, coeliac disease or inflammatory bowel diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome. So, to help our gut bacteria do their job, it’s important to supply them with plenty of fibrous fruit and vegetables.


4. Maintains a healthy metabolism

Our gut bacteria play an important role in our metabolism. This is our body’s ability to convert the chemicals in our food into the substances our body needs. For example, bacteria break down protein to produce the amino acids we need for repairing and building new cells. They also metabolise fat into fatty acids and turn carbohydrates into glucose for energy. If the gut microbiome is disrupted, it can increase the risk of metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity.


5. Regulates our weight

It might seem unfathomable that the trillions of tiny organisms living in our gut could affect our weight, but the link is clear. Research has shown that people with obesity have different gut bacteria to people of a healthy weight. Researchers found that a low-fat vegan diet induced significant changes in people’s gut microbiota “which were related to changes in weight, body composition, and insulin sensitivity in overweight adults.” High-fibre plant-based diets increase the production of SCFAs in the gut, which have a positive effect on weight regulation.


6. Regulates blood sugar levels and improves insulin sensitivity

The link between our gut microbiome and our susceptibility to both type 1 and type 2 diabetes is so clear that scientists may be able to predict how vulnerable a person is based on the diversity of their gut bacteria. They have found that our gut becomes disrupted (dysbiosis) as insulin sensitivity decreases (pre-diabetes). However, the positive effects of a vegan diet on the microbiome may be one of the reasons why vegans have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.


7. Keeps your heart healthy

Gut bacteria have a direct link with the risk of cardiovascular disease – a healthy gut can reduce the risk whereas dysbiosis can increase cardiovascular disease risk factors. Researchers go as far as saying, “the gut microbiota can influence and be affected by virtually all cardiovascular risk factors known to date.”

Of course, our gut can only do its job properly when we feed it the right food ie fibre-rich plant foods. When we eat the wrong kind of food – ie meat – our gut microbiota produce trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which reduces our body’s ability to process cholesterol and may increase the risk of heart disease. TMAO is virtually non-existent in the guts of those following a vegan diet.


8. Prevents neurological diseases

Did you know that our gut and brain talk to each other? This two-way communication takes place in the “gut-brain axis”. The brain can send information to the gut and the gut can send information back to the brain. In fact, around 200 million neurons in our central nervous system regulate the activity of our entire digestive tract. All this is to say that our gut and neurological health are inextricably linked. Research has shown links between the development and treatment of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis and the gut microbiome. A plant-based diet has many benefits for the brain and its role in nurturing a healthy gut microbiome may be another one to add to the list.


9. Influences our mood and mental health

The gut-brain axis also plays an important role in our mood regulation and mental health. It allows the brain to influence the gut, and the gut to influence mood and mental health. Research has shown that fluctuations in the microbiota affect the cognitive and emotional centres of the brain. Researchers agree that, “several mood disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and autism spectrum disorders now have well-established links to functional GI [gastrointestinal] disruptions”, and gastrointestinal diseases (eg irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bowel disease) often coincide with psychological conditions linked to changes in the gut microbiome. A growing number of studies show that a plant-based diet can improve mood and this may be down to the positive effect of plants on our gut bacteria.


10. Absorbs and produces vitamins and minerals

It’s not just fibre that feeds our gut bacteria – research shows that vitamins also increase bacteria diversity. Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins making eating them a great way to boost beneficial bacterial diversity. And our gut bacteria don’t just feed from vitamins, they produce them too. Our gut bacteria can make C, K, and B-complex vitamins. Our gut bacteria also regulate our vitamin D receptors, which may protect against irritable bowel disease.


When you understand how the gut microbiome affects nearly every aspect of our health, you understand the importance of making sure you are doing everything you can to nurture it. Fortunately, a wholefood plant-based diet is the perfect way to maintain a diverse and healthy gut microbiome. Find out six ways to nurture your gut microbiome here.

About the author
Nicholas Hallows
Nicholas has been vegan since the early 2000s and worked for Viva! between 2017 and 2020 as a Senior Administrator and Web Content Assistant. He is a qualified teacher, specialising in Language and Literacy, and an accredited Proofreader and Editor. He is now a freelance writer covering topics including veganism, mindfulness and minimalism.

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