Your microbiome is a complex ecosystem of microbes, including good and not-so-good bacteria, that live on and inside your body. The microbes that live in your gut are linked to overall health, digestive health, nutrition, cognition, mood, and your immune system. A balanced gut microbiome is one in which there are more good bacteria than the not-so-good variety. When the balance is tipped, the effect can extend further than you might think.

“The gut microbiome plays an important role in diet, in particular, digestion and fermentation of complex carbohydrates,” says Dr. Michael Surette of McMaster University and the Farncombe Family Digestive Health Institute. “Over 50 percent of your immune cells are in the gut and an important role of the microbiome is to maintain the immune system.”

Why is a balanced microbiome so important?

Your microbiome is shaped by many factors including diet, exercise, medications, stress, and genetics. However, the switch from having a well-balanced microbiome to having an unbalanced one can happen unexpectedly, for many reasons. Digestive troubles are only the beginning when it comes to an unbalanced microbiome. The far-reaching effects can go from head to toe. “The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication between the brain and the gut which we now know is also influenced by gut bacteria,” says Dr. Surette.

The significance of the two-way communication between the gut and the brain is an emerging area of microbiota science. Recent research has demonstrated the influence of the microbiota on behavior and mental health. Compounds produced by the gut microbiota serve as energy sources, signaling molecules, neurotransmitters, and precursors to neuroactive compounds.

Genetics, birth method, early feeding practices, and medications received in the first year of life affect the initial establishment of the gut microbiota. Later our diet, the environment, and medications influence the diversity and abundance of organisms in the microbiota, which impact its function; influencing all the processes in which the microbiota plays a part to support overall wellness.

How can probiotics help?

A regimen of probiotic supplements can give you the power to impact the health of your microbiome by promoting a balanced level of good bacteria in your gut. “Probiotics can stimulate the immune system in a positive way, promoting balance or anti-inflammatory responses,” says Dr. Surette. “In some instances, they can also directly kill non-beneficial bacteria. Probiotics are transient and most pass through and do not colonize the gut, which is why you have to keep taking them.”

Choosing the right probiotic, however, can be difficult as what’s good for one person may not be effective in another. Still, even in a vacuum, some probiotics have been shown to be generally more effective than others. For instance, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG is the number one clinically-studied probiotic strain in the world and has been shown to be effective in helping to manage and reduce the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in both adults and children as well as promoting favorable gut flora for overall wellness benefits.

If you suspect your digestive tract to be unbalanced, there is very little reason not to try a probiotic supplement. “Probiotics are well regarded as safe for consumption,” says Dr. Surette.

At the end of the day, what’s going on in your gut has a surprisingly large effect on what goes on in your life. When you feel good, you can do good. By activating the power of the microbiome through probiotics, we can help everyone live their best life.