If your first reaction to the word bacteria is eww!, it's time to reconsider. Once known as microscopic mischief-makers responsible for a variety of illnesses, like food poisoning and strep throat, certain bugs have started to show their good side. Or more precisely, experts have discovered that there are beneficial strains of bacteria living in your body, and these critters can help with a variety of health issues.
The microbiome is the term for the colony of trillions of tiny organisms called microbes, mainly bacteria, living in and on your body. It weighs as much as 5 pounds, and you pick up bacteria through the environment as well as your diet.
Most microbes call the gut home, so fostering its health with a mix of good-for-you bacteria helps you reap many mind and body benefits, like a stronger immune system, improved digestion and better mood (an unbalanced microbiome has been associated with both brain fog and anxiety).
WHY FOOD MATTERS
What you consume—or not—can make a big difference in how your gut behaves. Foods can nourish (or harm) good bacteria, protect against bad bacteria or help promote bacterial diversity (the right balance of bugs) in the gut. To get started, use this guide:
GOOD-BELLY CHEAT SHEET
- Yogurt (look for live and active cultures on the label)
- Red wine
- Fiber-rich foods (whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables)
- Kefir (a yogurt-like milk drink)
- Sour pickles
- Whole milk
- Sugary beverages (soda and energy drinks)
- Red meat
- Artificial sweeteners
Probiotic supplements are made of good-for-you microbes and companies market them as easy ways to promote gut health. But they're not regulated by the FDA like drugs, so it can be hard to know what's in these supplements and whether they do what they promise. If you suffer from GI issues, you may want to consider brands that have undergone testing and have been shown to be effective, such as Align and Florastor. Check with your pharmacist or doctor before choosing one.
Assume antibiotics are always good
Headed to the doctor for an Rx for a sinus infection? Hit pause. Antibiotics are often overprescribed—the CDC estimates that 1 out of 3 prescriptions may be unnecessary. And the results can be devastating for your gut. Antibiotics don't discriminate: They wipe out both the bad and good bacteria in your body. They're useful against bacterial infections, but they don't work for ailments caused by viruses (like colds and respiratory infections). So use them only when needed.
JOY BAUER, MS, RDN, is NBC's TODAY show nutrition expert, a best-selling author and the founder of .