You take probiotics to keep your gut bacteria in check, but the good-for-you benefits extend beyond better digestion
Your gut is like a rainforest, home to a thriving ecosystem of healthy (and sometimes harmful) bacteria, most of which are still unidentified. In fact, scientists are just now starting to understand just how far-reaching the effects of this microbiome really are. Recent research has revealed that it plays a role in how your brain reacts to stress, the food cravings you get, and even how clear your complexion is. So we rounded up the six most surprising ways these good-for-you bugs are pulling the strings behind the scenes of your health.
About 95 percent of the human microbiome is found in your gut, so it makes sense that it regulates weight. The more diverse your gut bacteria are, the less likely you are to be obese, according to research in the journal Nature. (Good news: exercising seems to increase gut bug diversity.) Other studies have shown that intestinal microbes can trigger food cravings. The bugs require different nutrients to grow, and if they aren’t getting enough of something—like sugar or fat—they’ll mess with your vagus nerve (which connects the gut to the brain) until you crave what they need, researchers from UC San Francisco say.
As you age, the population of your microbiome increases. The extra bugs may activate the immune system, creating chronic inflammation—and increasing your risk for a host of inflammatory age-related conditions, including heart disease and cancer, say researchers at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. So doing things that keep your healthy bacteria healthy, like taking probiotics (like GNC's Multi-Strain Probiotic Complex; $40, gnc.com) and eating a balanced diet, may also help you live longer. (Check out 22 Things Fit Women Over Age 30 Experience.)
A growing body of evidence suggests that your gut microbiome can actually communicate with the brain, leading to changes in mood and behavior. When Canadian researchers gave anxious mice gut bacteria from fearless mice, the nervous rodents became more aggressive. And another study seemed to show that women who ate probiotic yogurt experienced less activity in the areas of the brain associated with stress. (Another foodie mood booster? Saffron, used in these 8 Healthy Recipes.)
After genome sequencing participants’ skin, UCLA scientists identified two strains of bacteria associated with acne and one strain associated with clear skin. But even if you’ve got one of the unlucky zit-causing strains, eating probiotic yogurt to maximize the health of your friendly bugs can help heal acne faster and make skin less oily, according to Korean research. (Another new way to Get Rid of Acne: Face Mapping.)
Scientists have long suspected there’s a connection between eating red meat and heart disease, but the reason for it hasn’t been fully understood. Your gut bacteria may be the missing link. Cleveland Clinic researchers found that as you digest red meat, your gut bacteria create a byproduct called TMAO, which promotes plaque accumulation. If more studies back its efficacy, TMAO testing may soon be like cholesterol testing—a quick, easy way to assess your risk for heart disease and get some insight into the best dietary approach. (5 DIY Health Checks that Could Save Your Life.)
Turns out, your friendly bacteria have their own mini-biological clocks that sync up to yours—and just as jet lag can throw off your body clock and make you feel foggy and drained, so too can it throw off your “bug clock.” That may help explain why people with frequently messed-with sleep schedules are more likely to have issues with weight gain and other metabolic disorders, according to Israeli researchers. The study authors say that trying to stick as closely to your hometown eating schedule even when you’re in a different time zone should help ease the disruption.