Millions upon millions of bacteria live in your body, the majority of them in your digestive tract. These bacteria can be your best friends for better health or your worst enemies. Many times the choice is up to you.

If you follow a healthy lifestyle to encourage a supportive crowd of probiotic bacteria, these little denizens of goodness can assist your immune system and help it function well. But if you get too sloppy with your day-to-day habits and foods, bacteria that don’t have your best interests in mind can begin to cause trouble, and that trouble may not be easily fixed.

For years, medical researchers have been warning that Americans consume too many foods that contain what are called omega-6 fats and too few foods with omega-3 fats. And, it turns out, that’s wreaking havoc with the bacteria in our intestines.

Omega-6 Fats Cause Bad Bacteria to Grow

Our omega-6 habit, researchers warn, is causing an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and increased inflammation in the digestive system that is linked to heart problems, diabetes, cancer and auto-immune diseases.

And according to an investigation at the University of Alabama, Americans’ heavy daily dose of omega-6s increases our chances of gaining weight and damaging the healthy bacteria living in our digestive tract in a way that causes the immune system to lapse into chronic inflammation.1

They add that as you get older, this type of never-ending inflammation steadily worsens. As if that’s not bad enough, their lab tests provide evidence that if an older person has a heart attack while eating this type of American diet, the interaction between digestive bacteria and the immune system significantly increases the risk of heart failure.

In addition, researchers at the University of California Davis warn that our penchant for taking antibiotics sets us up for suffering yet another illness, inflammatory bowel disease.2

Antibiotics Destroy Your Digestive Tract

In their study, the California scientists discovered that eating a high fat diet (they don’t specify which types of fats they mean, but it’s probably safe to say they were mostly omega-6s) in combination with antibiotic use, harms the mitochondria in cells lining the intestine so that they leak oxygen into the digestive tract.

In turn, the oxygen harms the beneficial bacteria in the intestines, as these bacteria need a low oxygen environment to flourish. As a result, numbers of harmful bacteria increase. That bacterial shift leads to inflammation that’s a big step toward suffering inflammatory bowel disease.

Natural health experts say that it’s more important than ever before to support a healthy bacterial balance in your gastrointestinal tract. Fortunately, it’s not too terribly difficult.

Improving Your Bacteria Naturally

Aside from making an effort to consume more omega-3 fats and less omega-6s, eating raw organic fruits and vegetables can help to improve the bacteria in your gut.

The raw produce feeds the bacteria dwelling in your intestines.

Plus, according to a study in Australia, uncooked fruits and vegetables also have beneficial bacteria in them that you can consume. And organic raw vegetables and fruits provide more diverse and better-for-you probiotic bacteria than conventional produce or cooked fruits and vegetables.

“The bacteria, fungi and viruses in our food transiently colonize our gut,” says researcher Gabriele Berg. “Cooking kills most of these, so raw fruits and vegetables are particularly important sources of gut microbes.”

It’s important to eat organic produce as much as possible. The Australian researchers also note that the 100 million bacteria in and on an organic apple are a healthier selection of diverse probiotics than you find in conventionally-grown apples.

Dr. Berg says, “Escherichia-Shigella – a group of bacteria that includes known pathogens – was found in most of the conventional apple samples, but none from organic apples. For beneficial Lactobacilli – of probiotic fame – the reverse was true.”

Getting exercise is another way to improve your gut bacteria. A 12-week study in Japan of women over age 65 shows that brisk walking improved the number of beneficial intestinal bacteria.3

You can — and should — take probiotic supplements as well. A study at Emory University shows that probiotic supplements can also boost liver health.4 And research in England found that taking probiotics can lower the risk for respiratory problems among overweight people by 27 percent.5

As you can see, the bacteria growing in your body are central players in your health. They’re so important that some researchers foresee that someday experts will announce a “Recommended Daily Intake of Microbes.”6 Until then, I’d suggest employing all of these natural recommendations to keep your intestinal tract in healthy bacterial balance.