How to Have Healthy Gut Bacteria

If you haven't yet heard much about your gut bacteria, part of your overall gut flora, chances are you are going to be hearing a lot more about this topic in the future. These previously much-overlooked bacteria are now being associated with a wide range of human health solutions and problems.

As you follow along with this unfolding science, there are things that you can do to ensure that your gut bacteria are as healthy as they can be. Take a look at what is known about your gut bacteria, what can put it out of balance, and what helps it to thrive.

Breakfast yogurt parfait with granola, mango, berries in jar
ArxOnt / Getty Images 

What Are the Gut Flora?

The gut flora (also referred to as the microbiome, microbiota, or microflora) make up a world of microorganisms that populate our gastrointestinal tract. It is estimated there are about 100 trillion of these microorganisms, called microbes. The flora of the gut is predominantly various strains of bacteria, but there are also some fungi and protozoa.

Research has found that we are not born with gut flora. Instead, the digestive systems of newborns get populated with flora from their mother during the process of vaginal birth.

As babies get older, differences have been found between the flora of breast-fed and formula-fed infants. Once infants are weaned, (around the age of two) their flora more closely resembles that of adult flora.

Our relationship with the gut flora is considered to be mutually beneficial. Our gut flora is thought to contribute to our health in several ways. A few examples of how our gut health can influence our whole-body health include:

  • Promoting digestion
  • Keeping harmful bacteria at bay
  • Stimulating the immune system
  • Synthesizing certain vitamins
  • Supporting gut motility
  • Helping absorb nutrients

What Hurts Gut Bacteria

In a state of optimal health, beneficial strains of bacteria in our gut keep strains that have the potential to be troublesome in check. When the balance is off, it is called dysbiosis. Changes can occur in the makeup of the flora themselves, how they are distributed, and how they are functioning.

Intestinal dysbiosis is a term used by researchers to describe a hypothetical state in which there exists an overgrowth of the more troublesome strains.

Several factors have been hypothesized to have a negative impact on the health of intestinal gut bacteria.

  • Antibiotic use
  • Modern diet
  • Peristalsis dysfunction
  • Physical stress
  • Psychological stress
  • Radiation

When Gut Bacteria Goes Bad

Researchers have been seeing an association between intestinal dysbiosis and a variety of chronic illnesses. These include:

Gut Health and Immunity

It's not surprising to see two bowel disorders included on the list of illnesses associated with gut bacteria, but the links to other chronic, system-wide health problems might come as a surprise. Several theories have posited that dysbiosis contributes to the abnormal immune system response that drives many of these disorders.

For example, research is looking at the role that the health of the gut flora plays in intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome) and how that relates to autoimmune disease. Recent studies have also provided insight into the relationship between having a healthy gut microbiome and our immune system.

The Gut Health of Bone Marrow Transplant Patients

One study found that the concentration of various types of immune cells in the blood changed based on the different bacterial strains in the gut. The research, published in the journal Nature in November, was based on more than 10 years of data from more than 2,000 patients cancer patients who underwent allogeneic stem cell and bone marrow transplants (BMTs).

When patients receive a BMT, their immune systems and microbiota are damaged and then restored. That's why the researchers took it as a chance to evaluate both parts of the body.

Blood and fecal samples were collected during the process—sometimes daily in many of the patients—which gave healthcare providers a detailed look at the rapid changes in the patients’ microbiome and immune systems.

The findings suggested that some bacteria influence the concentration of circulatory immune cell counts. Knowing that immune cell lines change in relation to specific bacteria in the gut is evidence of how our gut microbiome is intricately connected to our immune system.

Lifestyle Changes for Healthy Gut Bacteria

Based on what researchers currently know about what we need for healthy gut bacteria, the following changes may help you to optimize the health of your inner world.

  1. Keep antibiotic use to a minimum. Of course, you must alert your healthcare provider if you have signs of serious illness, but follow their advice and don't insist on a prescription for antibiotics for viral illnesses.
  2. Learn strong stress management skills. Modern life is filled with a multitude of stressors. You can learn skills for coping with these challenges in a way that results in less wear and tear on your body.
  3. If necessary, take probiotics. Probiotic supplements contain strains of bacteria that have been identified as being beneficial for humans. Although the research on the benefits of probiotics has been mixed, and to date, there is no hard research that they can change the makeup of your gut flora, they are generally well-tolerated and have been shown to improve symptoms in people who suffer from IBS. As with all over-the-counter supplements, be sure to get clearance from your healthcare provider before use.

Gut Bacteria and Diet

Although the research in this area is quite preliminary, the following dietary changes might help keep your friendly gut bacteria happy and certainly will do you no harm:

Decrease Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates

These food components interact with gut bacteria through a process of fermentation and can contribute to excessive symptoms of gas and bloating.

Get to Know Prebiotics

As you hear more and more about gut bacteria, you will also be hearing more and more about prebiotics. Prebiotics are ingredients in foods that encourage the growth of beneficial flora. Prebiotics are primarily found in vegetables and fruits that are high in soluble and insoluble fiber.

Two other buzzwords are "fructooligosaccharides" and "inulins;" foods with these prebiotic components seem to be especially gut flora-friendly. Here are some examples:

  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Blueberries
  • Chicory
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Rye

Eat More Fermented Foods

Fermented foods are foods that already contain live cultures of beneficial strains of bacteria. This may sound really exotic, but as you look at the list, you are probably very familiar with two of the examples:

  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut (not canned—the raw, unpasteurized kind from the refrigerator section of the grocery store)
  • Yogurt

Consider Bone Broth

Although the research is scant, many alternative health practitioners endorse bone broth as being very healing for the gut.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gritz EC, Bhandari V. The human neonatal gut microbiome: a brief review. Front Pediatr. 2015;3:17. doi:10.3389/fped.2015.00017

  2. Guaraldi F, Salvatori G. Effect of breast and formula feeding on gut microbiota shaping in newborns. Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 2012;2:94. doi:10.3389/fcimb.2012.00094

  3. Zhang YJ, Li S, Gan RY, Zhou T, Xu DP, Li HB. Impacts of gut bacteria on human health and diseasesInt J Mol Sci. 2015;16(4):7493–7519. doi:10.3390/ijms16047493

  4. Cresci GA, Bawden E. Gut Microbiome: What we do and don't knowNutr Clin Pract. 2015;30(6):734–746. doi:10.1177/0884533615609899

  5. Weiss GA, Hennet T. Mechanisms and consequences of intestinal dysbiosis. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2017;74(16):2959-2977. doi:10.1007/s00018-017-2509-x

  6. Hills RD Jr, Pontefract BA, Mishcon HR, Black CA, Sutton SC, Theberge CR. Gut microbiome: Profound implications for diet and diseaseNutrients. 2019;11(7):1613. doi:10.3390/nu11071613

  7. Singh RK, Chang HW, Yan D, et al. Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. J Transl Med. 2017;15(1):73. doi:10.1186/s12967-017-1175-y

Additional Reading

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.