What’s all this buzz about the microbiome these days, you ask? OK, so here’s what we know… pretty much nothing.

But wait! Don’t click away. This is NOT the end of the story. In fact, it’s only just the beginning. Thanks to several years and millions of dollars worth of scientific research, today we know that we don’t know much, but we know that we need to know more, you know? Are you still with me?

Welcome to Microbiome 101. Let’s start with the basics. What is this microbiome thing anyway? Turns out there’s a small world comprised of trillions of microorganisms that make their home in our digestive tract and influence anything and everything that happens in our bodies, including our brains. Pesky pimples? Your gut is to blame. Obesity? Blame the bacteria (seriously – recent studies show that gut microbes play a role in human metabolism and obesity). Depressed? Yep, that’s your microbiome, too.

As we’ve always known, the human body is a very complex system, made all the more complicated by the discovery of the microbiome, now considered to be the key to health and responsible for disease. It all comes back to balance. When our microflora are balanced, everything works as it should and we’re “healthy.” When the microflora are out of balance, that’s where disease begins. Once we can pinpoint the specific role the microbiome plays in immunity, the possibilities for illness prevention and treatment are endless. How exciting! But, that means we actually are what we eat, and might need to think about eating to nurture this mass of bacteria regulating our body.

It all comes back to balance.

For this lesson in digestive learning, we turned to our favorite expert in all things intestinal intelligence, Robyn Youkilis, AADP, Wellness Expert, TV Host, founder of Your Healthiest You and author of the new book, Go with Your Gut.

While we’ve grown up thinking that bacteria is bad and microrganisms are something we should kick to the curb (see: that hand-sanitizer that never leaves your handbag), these microbes are crucial components of our health and well-being. We now know that microbes play an important role in not only digestion, but also in mood, energy levels, and every system in our bodies that keeps us alive.

According to Youkilis, “Recent evidence indicates that not only is our brain ‘aware’ of our gut microbes, but these bacteria can influence our perception of the world and alter our behavior. A healthy microbiome can actually improve our happiness!” She adds, “So many of my clients, especially women, come to me with bloating, irregularity, extra weight they can’t get rid of, and lack of energy. I am fully convinced that there is a reason why our bellies are located in the center, or “core”, of our bodies. The health of your digestive system influences everything — energy, mental focus, mood, and appearance (hair, skin, nails, weight). The better your body is able to process and use the nutrients from your food, the better you feel.”

Robyn notes: “People tend to think that the gut is just this machine that processes, transports, and absorbs food, but it’s actually an extensive sensory system, signaling system, and immune system. There’s a reason we have those “gut feelings” — there’s a link between our minds and our guts!”

Have you ever literally felt “butterflies” in your stomach before a big presentation at work or suddenly felt really nauseous before going on stage? It’s no coincidence – your gut is literally your second brain, also known as the enteric nervous system.

It’s no coincidence – your gut is literally your second brain, also known as the enteric nervous system.

“There are hundreds of millions of neurons connecting the brain to the enteric nervous system, the part of the nervous system that is tasked with controlling the gastrointestinal system. The enteric nervous system is so extensive that it can operate as an independent entity without input from our central nervous system, although they are in regular communication. While our ‘second’ brain cannot compose a symphony or paint a masterpiece the way the brain in our skull can, it does perform an important role in managing the workings of our inner system and it is as plentiful and complex as the network of neurons in our spinal cord,” Youkilis explains.

Think of the microbiome like the NYC subway in summertime. It’s packed with all different people doing all different things. If everyone is smiling and behaving, the ride goes smoothly. If one person smells really bad, the entire car will smell. If one person starts singing or screaming loudly, everyone’s equilibrium will be disturbed. Even if more awesome, wonderfully-smelling people get on, things will still be pretty bad in the car. The only solution is to kick off all of the smelly and annoying folks to leave some space to let in the awesome people.

So how do we keep our microbiomes happy?

“I coach my clients on adding probiotic- and prebiotic-rich gut-healthy foods into their diets and how to slow down and really chew their food. Chewing your food is at the root of your digestion, because as I always say, your stomach doesn’t have teeth!” Youkilis suggests.

Her favorite gut-friendly foods include sauerkraut, bone broth, and gelatin gummies (check out the recipe in her book, it’s literally “brain candy”!). That said, she doesn’t recommend diving into an all-fermented diet from the get-go (or the gut-go in this case!): “Depending on the current state of your digestive system, even some fermented products might be too much right now. Some of my favorite foods like sauerkraut and kombucha might not be the right place for you to start.”

To begin to nurture your gut, she recommends staying away from processed foods — sugars, flours, and most things found in a box or a package — and focusing on whole foods, real vegetables and fruits. “You’d be surprised when you read the labels of ‘healthy’ bars or protein bars — they can be loaded with sugar, processed ingredients, starches, and other stuff that will leave you feeling bloated, icky, and probably hungry for something better! I’m always wary of anything labeled ‘healthy’ (the healthiest foods traditionally don’t have or need a label!).”

Remember that balancing the microbiome takes time and doesn’t usually happen overnight. Youkilis adds:

“If you’re still struggling with bloating, digestive enzymes are great to take before meals. Digestive enzymes help break up your food so your belly doesn’t have to do all the work (less work for your belly also means more energy for you!).”

Plus, while recent microbiome research confirms that we indeed are what we eat, remember that we’re not just what we eat.

“Breathing, chewing, self-care, and drinking plenty of filtered water first thing in the morning are going to be as important as getting your fermented foods in! It all works together,” says Youkilis.

Rebecca Leffler is an American journalist, author, and wellness consultant. After a long career in entertainment in Paris, France, she’s traded red carpets for green smoothies and croissants for kale. She loves: the morning, yoga, avocados, fresh air, French air, puns, lemons, coconuts, flower, fancy hotel lobbies and chemical-free tampons. She hates: pineapples, negativity, frowning and being cold. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter for more. Photo credit: Astrid di Crollalanza.