If someone asked you “how’s your microbiome doing?” a few years ago, you’d probably feel moderately offended and tell them to mind their own business. Generally, talking about your gut health was not considered a part of polite conversation with anyone except your gastroenterologist. How times have changed! You can’t walk three feet in the grocery store without seeing something touting prebiotics. What gives? It all comes down to this key question:
Bacteria: friend or foe?
Back in the Middle Ages, medicine took an exponential leap forward with the concept of germ theory: the idea that many diseases are caused not by ‘ill humors’ or the lack of a good bloodletting, but by tiny organisms too small to see with the naked eye. In 1928, Alexander Fleming pushed us into a new stratosphere with the discovery that penicillin, an innocuous looking mold, was capable of stopping bacteria in their tracks.
For the next century or so, we’ve been busy at work figuring out how to kill bacteria, be it with antibiotics we swallow, disinfectants in our soap and in cleaning sprays, and in our overall belief that the more sterile something was, the better it had to be for our health. Bacteria = bad!
On the other hand, we’ve also been reaping the benefits of bacteria and other microorganisms for years. Whether it’s yeast turning grains into beer or bacteria fermenting our favorite sauerkrauts and yogurts, our understanding of the role of microorganisms in our lives continues to evolve as we realize just how much these little organisms can accomplish. Bacteria = good!
We’ve also known our guts are teeming with bacteria. We know there are ‘bad’ bacteria, the ones that move in after a course of antibiotics or cause a bad case of food poisoning, and we’ve also known having a healthy population of “good” bacteria goes a long way in keeping the baddies from setting up shop. Without really knowing exactly what these bacteria do, most of us have gone about our lives thinking of the good bacteria as innocuous hitchhikers in a symbiotic relationship: they don’t do much, really, but they don’t hurt either.
We were wrong. Enter the world of Gut Microbiomes.
What the heck is a microbiome?
The intestines host a world all their own. Teeming with bacteria and viruses, the microbiome feeds off the environment we’ve created for it while doing a whole heck of a lot in return, such as:
- Producing fatty acids that keep our gut lining healthy
- Helping to digest carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Producing critical chemicals like serotonin
- Regulating inflammation of the GI tract
- Promoting healthy weight and metabolism
Not only do these bacteria assist in digestion and promote the health of the gut itself, many of these actions impact the entire body. Heard of the gut-brain axis? It’s true! The health of the gut can directly impact cognitive function and mental health. Anyone who’s felt ‘sick to their stomach’ under times of extreme duress may find this not so surprising.
Each month, a new study into the effect of the microbiome tells us something new: the microbiome affects neurotransmitters, metabolism, mental health, inflammation, and even the aging process. If your microbiome isn’t healthy, in short, neither are you.
If it sounds complex, that’s because it really is. Your overall health can impact your gut health. Conversely, your gut health creates ripple effects throughout the entire body. And every one of these same principles applies to our pets.
The importance of food
We all know that food is important for health. What we didn’t know was just how important. Food provides essential macro- and micro-nutrients, the building blocks of our bodies. It is a fuel for our bodies. But just as importantly, it fuels the microbiome.
Nutrition choices directly affect the health of our microbiome, a fact that’s even easier to observe in pets- whose diets often vary much less than the average person. The biomes of a dog eating a high-protein diet, for example, is consistently different from that of a dog on a higher-carbohydrate diet. What does this mean? We’re learning more every day.
In addition to the choice of pet food, pet owners can impact gut health by adding probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are the bacteria itself: eating yogurt for a mouthful of Lactobacillus, for example, would be ingesting probiotics. Prebiotics, in contrast, are components that serve as food for the microbiome: health food for your bacteria buddies. One thing we do know: the dog and cat microbiomes are unique to them. In short? Don’t grab people supplements and expect them to help. Stick to products meant for pets.
We don’t know everything there is to learn about the microbiome, but one fact is crystal clear: take care of your microbiome and it will take care of you. And when it comes to taking care of the gut, there’s nothing more important than the food you choose to feed it. Luckily for you, when it comes to your pet, we’ve believed this all along.
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