Most people recognize that health conditions such as chronic diseases, metabolic disorders, and aging affect our quality of life, yet the role of our gut microbiome in conjunction with the influences of diet and environmental factors on our health is often overlooked (1). The gut microbiome refers to all the microbes that inhabit our gastrointestinal tract, which includes fungi, bacteria, viruses, and archaea (single-celled microbes, similar to bacteria) (2,3,6). These microbes, which form an intricate biological community residing in our gastrointestinal tract, are responsible for aiding in many different processes in the body. Understanding our gut microbiome can offer valuable insights into our overall well-being (1,6,7). This blog focuses on US college students’ gut microbiome because of their abrupt change in food security as they transition to college. This population can give insight into microbiomes from people of various ages, diets, and lifestyles, and which microorganisms are associated with this acclimation of college life. This change in food security could be from leaving home, access to affordable healthy meals, or changing financial situation, which may lead to a significant change in the gut microbiome in college students and ultimately affect their waist size (4,5,8). Research on the gut flora of college students shows which microbes are associated with overall positive health, and investigates ways to nourish a healthy microbiome for adults in college (1,4,5,8). By understanding the foundations of a well-balanced gut microbiome, we can make informed choices to maintain our personal gut ecosystem and focus on sustaining healthy life choices.
Microorganisms associated with health
So, how are the “bad” microbes different from the “good” microbes? Like many answers in science, it varies. While many of these microbes residing in our gastrointestinal tract are beneficial to humans, other microbes can cause disease under certain circumstances (3). There have been many studies to describe what microbes form a healthy gut microbiome. Modern techniques to study the DNA composition of the microbes in the human gut have been performed to better understand the differences in the gut microbiomes of healthy people and unhealthy people (3). Findings showed that there was a difference in microbes found between healthy and unhealthy guts. Both the types of microbes present and the abundance of these microbes influenced overall health (3). Looking at the gut microbiome across different ages, environments, diets, and diseases has shown that a certain balance of microbes is needed to maintain optimal health (7). Several studies have identified a healthy gut microbiota as one which is enriched with many different communities of microbes and without dominant levels of pathogenic microbes (3,5,7). Studies show that people can obtain a healthy microbiome by modifying their diet to increase high-fiber foods and lower carbohydrate intake (1,4,6). However, this type of diet may not be attainable for most college students due to changes in housing and financial security (4,5,8).
The college student microbiome
Unfortunately, many college students struggle to live a healthy lifestyle (4,5). Food insecurity is defined as not having consistent access to healthy food options, which many college students face (5). Research in this field is particularly interesting in first-year college students, as it is common for students to gain weight during their time in college, with changes in the gut microbiome and weight status (4,5) Results from one study showed that there was a significant association between one specific bacterial species in the gut and the waist change of the students throughout the year (4). In another study, a closer look at first-year college students’ diet, physical activity, and screen time showed that these factors can influence the makeup of the gut microbiota (8). Different levels of bacteria were found in the gut microbiome of the participants, and it was reported that consistent fiber consumption and moderate to rigorous physical activity may explain differences in gut microbes between first-year students (8). While more research is still needed, as this is an understudied topic, all this research provides valuable insight into the gut health of college students.
Cultivate a healthier gut microbiome
Suggestions for a college student struggling to keep up with their studies and to maintain a thriving gut flora include having a healthy diet and implementing regular exercise (2,4). A healthy diet consists of unrefined, unprocessed food high in fiber, and low in carbohydrates, which works best to help develop a diverse and active microbiome associated with positive human health (1,4,6,8). Because the gut microbiome is crucial for regulating different processes in the body and plays a role in the development of different diseases, having a varied microbiome can help reduce the levels of dominating pathogenic microbes that can negatively affect the way some processes in the body occur (6). For college students, campuses often have a food pantry where they offer basic necessities such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and easy-to-cook meals. Additionally, local organizations may potentially provide basic food necessities to the community, which can offer a dependable source of food for a healthy diet. Although a gut microbiome is not one size fits all when it is related to health, it can be an indication of a healthy lifestyle.
Written by Andres J. Orea, BS and Megan F. Hampton, BS and edited by Aldrin V. Gomes, PhD and Stephanie Palacio, PhD
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