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Published on January 16, 2018

illustration of woman and her stomach

More than a Gut Feeling – How Gut Bacteria Influences Your Health

We’ve all heard the phrases, “I have a gut feeling,” “Rely on your gut instinct” or “Trust your gut.” But have you ever considered that your gut might actually have a say in your health and well-being?  

Throughout the past decade, emerging research has discovered a connection between the state of an individual’s gut microbiome and the development of conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), obesity, anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), cancer and more.

And researchers at the Avera Institute of Human Genetics are at the forefront of this fascinating science with their own innovative gut microbiome research. 

What is the Microbiome?

The microbiome is a community of microorganisms – such as bacteria – that live both within us and outside of us. Most of them reside within the gut. In fact, humans have trillions of bacteria in their intestines that do good things, such as helping to digest food, regulate the immune system, produce vitamins and prevent bad bacteria from harming us.

Innovative Genetic Research

During his graduate studies at the University of South Dakota, Casey Finnicum, a research scientist at the Avera Institute of Human Genetics, became fascinated with the microbiome and its impact on our health. That’s why he has dedicated his PhD research to learning more about its connection specifically to obesity.  

“We’re finding that these microorganisms really have a great impact on our health in a number of very important ways,” he says. “And it all starts at birth. As we pass through the birth canal, we’re coated with microorganisms that our mom passes on to help colonize us with a community of microbes. Then, as we go through life, a number of different things – including our genetics, diet, activity level and the people around us – continue to influence our microbiome which then influences our health.”

At the Avera Institute for Human Genetics, Finnicum uses DNA sequencing technology to look at genes within bacteria that lives inside the gut. And thanks to Avera’s own twin register and its partnership with the Netherlands Twin Register, Finnicum can compare the DNA from hundreds of twins across the Midwest and the Netherlands.

With that wealth of data, he hopes to sort out what role genetics plays versus environment when it comes to obesity.  

“We’re trying to analyze what’s driven by environment so that we can know how to help our good bacteria – and therefore our bodies and minds – flourish,” he says.

How to Improve Your Microbiome Today

While there’s still a lot to learn about the microbiome, one thing we know is that variety is key.

“We’re learning that the composition of the microbiome – the different organisms that live there and the abundance of each one – is what’s important,” says Erik Ehli, PhD, BSN, Scientific Director at Avera Institute for Human Genetics. “Dysbiosis, or the disruption of a healthy composition, is a factor in the development of disease. The more diverse your gut bacteria, the better.”

To support a healthy microbiome, there are several things you can start doing today:

  • Eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir
  • Limit processed foods in your diet  
  • Take a high-quality probiotic

“You can really nourish the microbes in your gut by eating a good diet of non-processed foods,” Ehli says. “Research continues to tell us how what you eat does matter – not just for gut health, but your overall health.”

Live Better. Live Balanced. Avera.

Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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