You may have noticed the term “microbiome” being used more often in everyday discourse about health. What exactly does the word mean? What role does the microbiome play in our health? Let’s take a look…
What is the microbiome?
The microbiome refers to the diverse environment of bacteria living in and on the body. Most often when the term is used, it is referring to bacteria in the gut. There are three to ten times the number of bacteria living in the gut as there are human cells in the body. This may sound a bit disconcerting, but we’re awfully lucky to have these microbial guests. They help us digest and absorb nutrients; they play a huge role in our immune systems (70 to 80 percent of immune tissue is found in the digestive tract); and they help to manage mood (gut bacteria produce 90 percent of our serotonin).
A balanced microbiome equals health
The goal is to have a balanced and diverse microbiome to promote and maintain health. The modern lifestyle tends to throw this balance off, causing an overgrowth of bad bacteria, a condition known as dysbiosis. This imbalance can lead to inflammation in the gut, which eventually turns into leaky gut syndrome. This is the root of many health conditions, including
- bloating and fullness after eating
- food sensitivities
- chronic joint pain
- skin conditions
- weight gain
- mood disorders, and
- autoimmune diseases.
In order to maintain health, we need to tend to the health of this ecosystem living inside of each of us. Think of it like tending a garden. If you give it good compost and water, it will flourish. If you pull the weeds, it will make room for the plants that you want to grow. If you use heirloom seeds, you will maintain healthy biodiversity. On the other hand, if you you feed the garden with chemical fertilizers and manage the weeds and pests with herbicides and pesticides, you will grow nutrient-deficient and chemical-laden vegetables.
What damages the microbiome?
- Sugar: Sugar is one of the biggest culprits in damaging healthy diversity in gut flora, especially when eaten in the quantities of the standard American diet. Sugar feeds bad bacteria, yeasts, and parasites that can cause ill health.
- Antibiotics: Antibiotic medications tend to kill off both good and bad bacteria in the gut, leaving limited good bacteria to protect health. It’s important to remember that 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed aren’t coming from doctors; rather, they come from antibiotic-laden animal products. This is why it is important to eat only organic, free-range, antibiotic-free meats and dairy products.
- Medications: Proton pump inhibitors (gastric acid blocking agents, including Prilosec, Nexium, and Prevacid); non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (including ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen); and oral contraceptives have been shown to upset the microbiome.
- Chronic stress: Stress tends to decrease the biodiversity of the microbiome, so it is important to manage stress and maintain good sleep hygiene.
Building a healthy microbiome
- Being born: The microbiome begins at birth, and depends on our mother’s microbial diversity and whether we’re born through the vaginal canal or not. Sometimes a C-section is necessary, but then extra effort should be made to build up the newborn’s gut flora.
- Eat fermented and sprouted foods: Fermented vegetables, cultured dairy, and sprouted seeds will promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut.
- Eat prebiotic (plant fiber that nourishes healthy gut bacteria) foods: Foods like jicama, Jerusalem artichokes, raw asparagus, raw onions, and garlic feed good bacteria.
- Eat organic: Organically grown and raised vegetables, fruits and animal products will nourish the body and feed biodiversity of the microbiome.
- Take probiotics: Probiotics can help to support a healthy microbiome, especially if you haven’t started to add fermented foods to your diet.
It’s never too late to clean up your diet
If you eliminate processed sugar from your diet today and add in organic vegetables, fruits, and animal products, your microbiome will begin to shift in as little as two days. It may take awhile to heal your gut entirely, but it’s never too late to start reaping the benefits of a healthy diet and a balanced, diverse microbiome.
If you suffer from a sensitive digestive system, remember to start slowly with probiotic supplements and fermented foods. Too much of a good thing will cause a huge die-off of bad bacteria, which is not a comfortable experience. Also, if you find that probiotics and fermented foods only make you feel worse, it would be best to see your nutrition practitioner for additional support.