A person holds an apple in front of their stomach.
Fermented foods are rich in good bacteria, which is critical to building a healthy microbiome. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Picture this: It’s a busy morning in a bustling city. The streets are packed with all kinds of people walking quickly to their destinations.

Now imagine these packed city streets at a microscopic level.

That’s what the microbiome looks like inside of your body.

It consists of trillions of microorganisms—thousands of different species—all busily moving along the body’s pathways.

The largest number of them can be found in the intestines, but these microorganisms operate all throughout the body. And each one of us has a wholly unique microbiota network.

Originally, a person’s microbiome makeup is determined genetically. It’s boosted during delivery through the birth canal and by ingesting breast milk.

As we age, environmental exposure and diet begin to determine our microbiome’s makeup and whether it stays healthy and helps us thrive.

So how can we help keep the gut and its trillions of microorganisms happy? Here are a few ideas:

Taste the rainbow

Our microbiome helps us digest and use nutrients from the food we eat, including phytonutrients.

Phytonutrients are the naturally occurring chemicals that give fruits, vegetables and herbs their colors, tastes and textures. Our microorganisms are particularly helpful with breaking down these phytonutrients and helping them spread through our bloodstream to boost our overall health.

Eating fruits and veggies of many different colors can help keep your gut happy and your body energized.

Eat prebiotics

You may have heard of probiotics, but what are prebiotics? Prebiotics are compounds in food, especially foods high in fiber, that induce the growth of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. (Yes, we have these naturally occurring in the body—and yes, that’s a good thing.)

The highest amounts of prebiotics are found in raw versions of these foods:

  • Alliums such as garlic, onions, chives and leeks
  • Asparagus, the genetic cousin of alliums
  • Dandelion greens
  • Seaweed
  • Bananas

Generally speaking, fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains such as wheat, oats and barley are all good sources of prebiotic fibers. If you aren’t already eating a diet high in fiber or you have food sensitivities, add these foods in gradually to assess your gastrointestinal reaction.

Eat probiotics

An easy and safe way to introduce probiotics into your microbiome is through—you guessed it—food.

Probiotics are made up of good bacteria that help your body stay healthy. These good bacteria can be found in fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt with live cultures, pickled vegetables, tempeh, kombucha tea, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut.

You may have heard of probiotic products, but you should consult your doctor before adding in any probiotic pills or cosmetics.

Exercise a little, a lot

Physical activity supports digestive health. This we know. But how does the microbiome fit into this equation? Gut microbes talk to the neurotransmitters that fire in our brains in response to stress.

Exercising a little bit every day will help your microbiome work with your brain to reduce your stress response.

These steps not only keep your microbiome flourishing, they also boost your immune system. In fact, near­ly 70% of your immune sys­tem is housed in your gut.

Healthy bac­te­ria in your gut stim­u­late T‑cell development—and T-cells dis­tin­guish­ your body’s cells and tis­sue from harm­ful interlopers like cancer cells and viruses.

A healthy microbiome is essential to maintaining a robust immune system. A strong immune system full of T-cells not only keeps sickness at bay but also helps prevent your body from attacking itself and developing an autoimmune disease.

The microbiome and its many organisms can be our best friends. Know it, feed it and move it—and it will help you stay healthy and happy.