“Hack Your Health”: 6 things we learned from Netflix’s documentary about the human gut microbiome

Turns out, our gut plays a huge role in our overall wellbeing

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published May 10, 2024 2:40PM (EDT)

Variety of fruits and vegetables (Getty Images/Tanja Ivanova)
Variety of fruits and vegetables (Getty Images/Tanja Ivanova)

In the past 15 years, scientists have learned a lot about the complex microbial organisms that colonize our intestine. Turns out, our digestive system does more than just break down our food so it can be absorbed into our body. It actually has the power to dictate and enhance our overall well being.

The gut refers to our gastrointestinal tract that includes a series of hollow organs that are connected in a long, windy tube from the mouth all the way to the anus. Research has shown that several health issues, including weight gain, loss of appetite and diseases like Parkinson’s disease, depression and autoimmune disorders are all strongly linked to the gut. That’s why it’s important we pay attention to the foods we eat and prioritize a healthy diet to help improve our health.

The gut microbiome is further explored in Netflix’s new documentary, “Hack Your Health: The Secrets of Your Gut.” The hour-long feature explains our microbiome via four patients who are attempting to make sense of and tackle their individual health issues. There’s Maya Okada Erickson, a Michelin-starred pastry chef and recovering anorexic who is looking to build a healthy relationship with food; Daniell Koepke, a doctoral student who’s battling several digestive conditions; Kimmie Gilbert, an entrepreneur and single mother of three who is eager to lose weight; and Kobi Kobayashi, a competitive eater who no longer experiences hunger.

Here are six things we learned from the documentary:

Ninety-nine percent of the bacteria in our body are actually good for us

Bacteria is often associated with illness and infections. But actually, 99% of the bacteria that make up our microbiome — the collection of all microbes that naturally live on our bodies and inside us — are either harmless or incredibly beneficial.


Some bacteria even have more important roles than imagined, explained German doctor Giulia Enders. Certain bacteria help with digesting our foods. Others help strengthen the immune system and reduce our risks for inflammation and autoimmune diseases. In fact, approximately 70% of our immune system lives in our gut, said microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert. So it’s imperative that we take good care of it to maintain our health.


“We oftentimes believe that our human genes determine our health, but now we know that the microbiome is very central to being obese, being depressed, having allergies, or how stressed or relaxed you’ll feel,” said Enders. “We don’t know how big is the part that it plays in these entities. For some people it might be really relevant and for others, it might be smaller.”

The composition of the human microbiome is unique in each individual

Our microbiome is colonized by microbes shortly after we’re born. When a baby is born vaginally, it is first exposed to the bacteria in its mother’s vagina, explained microbiologist Erica Sonnenburg. The baby is then exposed to more bacteria once it's delivered. This bacteria comes from the mother’s anus as the baby is positioned head down, facing its mother’s back, with its chin tucked to its chest.


These bacteria make up our first microbial colonists and over time, they start to make a more habitable place to flourish for other microbes. “We shape our microbiome by all the little choices and adventures we have in our life,” said Enders. “Whoever we kiss, what we put in our mouth, where we travel.”


Our microbiome is also influenced by the relationships we have with our loved ones, the relationships we have with our pets, how often we exercise, our levels of stress and our childhood experiences.


Per Enders, our microbiome is essentially a “connection of microbial memories.”

The foods we eat greatly impact our microbial makeup

“If you eat a lot of sugar, you get sugar-loving bugs. If you eat a lot of fat, you get a lot of fat-loving bugs,” explained Gilbert. Compared to the diets of individuals who live in more rural communities, the standard American diet (also known as SAD) is lacking in fiber and other key nutrients. 


That’s why it’s important to diversify our diet in order to boost our microbiome. Dr. Annie Gupta recommended aiming to eat 20 to 30 fruits and vegetables per week.


“The gut is flexible. It really changes when we change the way we eat,” Enders said.

Individuals with depression-like symptoms are missing certain bacteria in their gut

Gilbert and his team found that people with certain depression-like symptoms were missing bacteria in their gut that produce chemicals which shape brain chemistry. The study utilized mice to compare two different microbiomes. Mice that were given microbes from a healthy person were generally more explorative and inquisitive. On the other hand, mice that were given microbes from a depressed individual developed stress, anxiety and depression. These mice also experienced changes in the chemicals involved in serotonin (the body’s natural “feel good” chemical) both in their gut and brain.


Scientists found that when the depressed mice were given key bacteria that they were missing, their overall mood was heightened. Their depression didn’t go away completely, but it was less severe than before.

Fecal microbiota transplant is an effective treatment for Clostridioides difficile infection

The procedure, also known as FMT for short, involves transferring fecal bacteria and other microbes from a healthy individual into another individual. FMT is an effective treatment for Clostridioides difficile infection (C. difficile infection or C. Diff. Colitis) which is an inflammation of the colon caused by the bacteria Clostridium difficile. Symptoms include diarrhea, belly pain, and fever.


FMT has a 90% cure rate for C. difficile infection. Scientists are currently trying to figure out if the procedure can treat hundreds of other conditions, both mental and physical.  


“With fecal microbiota transplant, there is really compelling evidence, but the science is still developing,” said Gilbert. 

Gut microbiome research is flourishing!
Scientists said the most recent findings on the gut microbiome is exciting and opening the doors for more research to be done. According to an article published in the microbiology journal Microbial Biotechnology, researchers are keen on learning more about the many ecosystem members that make up the human gut microbiome, the overall ecology within gut microbiomes and specific microbial molecules and mechanisms. Researchers are also looking to implement new educational programs for young scientists along with efficient data processing and management strategies to help move their findings forward.

“Hack Your Health: The Secrets of Your Gut” is currently available for streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below, via YouTube:


By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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Documentary Food News Gut Health Human Gut Microbiome List Netflix Nutrition Standard American Diet