By Sheena Hendon Health ((Registered professional nutritionist, Registered naturopath, Master NLP practitioner)
Your gut microbiome is a vast community of trillions of bacteria and fungi that inhabit every nook and cranny of your gastrointestinal tract, and have a major influence on your metabolism, body weight, the propensity to illness, immune system, appetite and mood. These microbes mostly live in your lower intestine (the colon) and outnumber all the other cells in your body put together.
According to research, the more diverse the community of gut microbes, the lower your risk of disease and allergies. Additionally, there is mounting evidence that babies born via caesarean section miss out on some of the microbes they would obtain through a vaginal birth, which may make them more vulnerable to obesity, allergies and asthma.
So how can you maintain or restore healthy gut flora, increase the good bacteria in your body, and give your microbiome a healthy boost?
The Microbiome key takeaways
- Microbiota is the trillions of bacterial organisms that live inside our bodies. The whole community of these bacteria is called the microbiome.
- Our gut is a central location of the microbiome, where the majority of bacteria live.
- Poor gut health is tied to nearly every disease there is in some way because this is where much of our immune system lives and where inflammation often begins.
- By improving your diet, eating plenty of anti-inflammatory foods and probiotics, lowering stress, and exercising regularly, you can support your body’s microbiome.
What Is the Human Microbiome?
The world of bacteria living in your gut
The human microbiome, or microbiota, is the bacterial ecosystem living within our bodies, mostly within our guts. The intestinal microbiota is made up of trillions of microorganisms, most of which are bacterial and not harmful to our health. Scientists have recognised for more than 100 years that bacteria in the gut are continually communicating with neurons in the brain, earning the microbiome the nickname ” the second brain”.
Within the human body, there are about ten times as many outside organisms as there are human cells? Microbes inhabit both the inside and outside of our bodies, mainly residing in the gut, digestive tract, genitals, mouth and nose areas. What determines if someone’s microbiome is in good shape or not? It comes down to the balance of “bad bacteria” versus “good bacteria.”
We need a higher ratio of gut-friendly “bugs” to outnumber those that are harmful to stay resilient and symptom-free. Unfortunately — due to factors like a poor diet, high amounts of stress and environmental toxin exposure — most people’s microbiomes are home to many billions of potentially dangerous bacteria, fungus, yeast and pathogens. When we carry around more pathogenic bacteria than we should and lack the diversity of protective bacteria we need, the microbiota suffers.
The human microbiome is home to more than just bacteria. It also houses various human cells, viral strains, yeasts and fungi — but bacteria seem to be the most important when it comes to controlling immune function and inflammation. To date, researchers have identified more than 10,000 different species of microbes living in the human body, and each one has its own set of DNA and specific functions. There’s still lots to learn about how each strain of bacteria affects various parts of the body and how each can either defend us from or contribute to conditions like obesity, autoimmune disorders, cognitive decline and inflammation.
But what do our gut bacteria do, and how? Roles of gut bacteria include:
- Helping to produce hormones, like serotonin, for example
- Aiding in the extraction of energy (calories) and nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids and antioxidants
- Managing our appetite and body weight
- Digesting fibre which helps form stools
- Controlling our moods, motivation and cognitive health
- Preventing us from catching colds and viruses
- Helping repair damaged tissues and injuries
- Much, much more that we are still finding out about
One of the most important things that “good bacteria” (also known as probiotics) living in the microbiota do contribute to our immune systems. This protects us against pathogen colonisation and invasion of harmful microbes that enter the body every single day.
So where do things wrong? Alterations in the microbiota (often called dysbiosis) can result for many reasons. Some of the most common are: exposure to various environmental pollutants and toxins, consuming a poor diet lacking anti-inflammatory foods, using toxic medications and over-the-counter drugs, smoking cigarettes, high amounts and stress and exposure to harmful pathogens from other sick people.
Throughout our lives, we help shape our microbiomes — plus they adapt to changes in our environment. For example, the foods you eat, how you sleep, the number of bacteria you’re exposed to daily and the level of stress you live with all help establish the state of your microbiota.
The Microbiome Diet: Eating to Support Immunity and Lower Inflammation
Your gut health can impact how your body extracts nutrients from your diet and stores fat. Gut microbiota plays an important role in obesity, and changes in bacterial strains in the gut have been shown to lead to significant changes in health and body weight after only a few days. For example, when lean germ-free mice receive a transplant of gut microbiota from conventional/fat mice, they acquire more body fat quickly without even increasing food intake, because their gut bugs influence hormone production (like insulin), nutrient extraction and fat storage.
So lets take a look at how you can reduce inflammation and boost the gut flora.
Foods that promote inflammation include:
Eat less (or none) of
- Refined vegetable oils (like canola, corn and soybean oils, which are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids)
- Dairy products (common allergens)
- Refined carbohydratesand processed grain products
- Conventional meat, poultry and eggs (high in omega-6s due to feeding the animals corn and cheap ingredients that negatively affect their microbiomes)
- Added sugars (found in the majority of packaged snacks, breads, condiments, canned items, cereals, etc.)
- Trans fats/hydrogenated fats (used in packaged/processed products and often to fry foods)
On the other hand, many natural foods can lower inflammation and help increase good bacteria in the gut. High antioxidant foods help reduce gut damage caused by oxidative stress and turn down an overactive immune system while safeguarding healthy cells.
Anti-inflammatory foods that should be the base of your diet include:
Seven ways to boost your gut health
- Increase prebiotics. Prebiotics provide a good food source for populations of healthy gut bacteria, such as bifidobacteria, which, in turn, prevent intestinal inflammation. Studies have shown that prebiotics can be particularly beneficial for obese people, as they reduce insulin and cholesterol levels while lowering the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Prebiotics can be bought as supplements, but they are also contained within foods including asparagus, leeks, bananas, garlic, onions and Jerusalem artichokes.
· Focus on fibre and wholegrains: Western diets tend to be rich in fat and sugar, with most of our food coming from only 12 plant and five animal species. However, following a diet rich in high-fibre foods such as apples, artichokes, blueberries, chickpeas, lentils, peas and beans can limit the growth of harmful bacteria and stimulate bifidobacteria, lactobacilli and another healthy species called Bacteroidetes.
· Up your intake of fermented products: Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, kombucha, natural yoghurts and fermented soya bean milk have been shown to promote the abundance of healthy gut bacteria and reduce the levels of enterobacteriaceae, a family of bacteria linked to some chronic diseases. Natural yoghurt enriched with bifidobacteria has been found to alleviate lactose intolerance in children and adults, while yoghurts enhanced with lactobacilli have had results in patients with inflammatory bowel disease. Avoid flavoured yoghurts, which tend to contain high levels of sugar.
· Prioritise polyphenols: Polyphenols are plant compounds that are mainly digested by gut bacteria and are associated with a variety of benefits including reducing blood pressure, cholesterol and oxidative stress. They are found in foods including almonds, blueberries and broccoli as well as in green tea, cocoa and red wine.
· Avoid artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are commonly found in food as replacements for sugar. However, aspartame has been found to alter gut bacteria. These changes appear to result in elevated blood sugar levels and increased susceptibility to metabolic disease.
- Go vegetarian: Several studies have suggested that vegetarian diets are good for the microbiome, with findings indicating that a largely plant-based diet decreases the levels of disease-causing bacteria such as E coli and Enterobacteriaceae. This may be particularly beneficial for obese people with type 2 diabetes or hypertension. One study found that obese people who switched to a vegetarian diet had reduced levels of potentially harmful bacteria as well as lower levels of cholesterol and inflammation after one month.
- Load up the veggies (all kinds): loaded with phytonutrients that are shown to lower cholesterol, triglycerides and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Aim for variety and a minimum of four to five servings per day. Some of the best include beets; carrots; cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale); dark, leafy greens (collard greens, kale, spinach); onions; peas; salad greens; sea vegetables.
- Whole pieces of fruit (not juice): Fruit contains various antioxidants like resveratrol and flavonoids, which are tied to cancer prevention and brain health. Three to four servings per day is a good amount for most people, especially apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, nectarines, oranges, pears, pink grapefruit, plums, pomegranates, red grapefruit or strawberries.
- Have plenty of herbs, spices and teas: turmeric, ginger, basil, oregano, thyme, etc., plus green tea and organic coffee in moderation.
- Wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs and grass-fed/pasture-raised meat: higher in omega-3 fatty acids than farm-raised foods and great sources of protein, healthy fats, and essential nutrients like zinc, selenium and B vitamins.
- Good fats from olive, flax and fish oil to nuts and seeds and avocados
- Ancient grains and legumes/beans: best when sprouted and 100 percent unrefined/whole. Two to three servings per day or less is best, especially Ansazi beans, adzuki beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils, black rice, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa.
- Red wine and dark chocolate/cocoa in moderation: several times per week or a small amount daily.
How Else Can You Establish a Strong Microbiome?
· Breastfeed if you can: Our microbiome is continually developing during our first two years of life. Studies show that babies who are breastfed for six months develop a much healthier gut compared with those who are fed with formula. Children who have been breastfed are also less prone to allergies, obesity, leukemia and diabetes; this is thought to be linked to the microbiome.
· Avoid Antibiotics as Much as Possible. Antibiotics have been commonly prescribed for over 80 years now, but the problem is that they eliminate good bacteria in addition to cleaning the body of dangerous “germs,” which means they can lower immune function and raise the risk for infections, allergies and diseases. While antibiotics can save lives when they’re truly needed, they’re often overprescribed and misunderstood.
Over time, dangerous bacteria can become resistant, making serious infections harder to fight. Before taking antibiotics or giving them to your children, talk to your doctor about alternative options and the unintended consequences to our microbiomes that can result from taking antibiotics too often and when they aren’t needed.
3. Lower Stress and Exercise More: Stress hinders immune function because your body diverts energy away from fighting off infections and places it on primary concerns that keep your alive — which is one reason why chronic stress can kill your quality of life. When your body thinks it’s facing immediate danger, you become more susceptible to infections and experience more severe symptoms while also developing higher levels of inflammation.
Stress causes immune compounds that contribute to the inflammatory response that damages healthy cells. Exercise is a natural stress reliver that can help lower inflammation, balance hormones and strengthen the immune system.
4. Add Supplements: Co-enzyme Q10, carotenoids, omega-3 fish oil, , selenium and antioxidants (vitamins C, D and E) can help keep free radical damage from disturbing microbiota gut health.
Gut Bacteria Benefits: Could Better Bacteria Cure Your Condition?
Poor gut health is tied to dozens of diseases, including:
Autoimmune diseases (arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, Hashimoto’s disease…): Autoimmune disorders develop when the body’s immune system goes awry and attacks its healthy tissue. Inflammation and autoimmune reactions largely stem from an overactive immune system and poor gut health. Leaky gut can develop, which results in small openings in the gut lining opening up, releasing particles into the bloodstream and kicking off an autoimmune cascade.
Brain disorders/cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc.): Inflammation is highly correlated with cognitive decline, while an anti-inflammatory lifestyle has been shown to lead to better memory retention, longevity and brain health. We now know there are multiple neuro-chemical and neuro-metabolic pathways between the central nervous system/brain and microbiome/digestive tract that send signals to one another, affecting our memory, thought patterns and reasoning. Differences in our microbial communities might be one of the most important factors in determining if we deal with cognitive disorders in older age.
Cancer: Many studies have shown a link between gut health and better protection from free radical damage, which causes brain, breast, colon, pancreatic, prostate and stomach cancers. Microbes influence our genes, which means they can either promote inflammation and tumour growth or raise immune function and act as a natural cancer treatment. An anti-inflammatory lifestyle can also help lower serious side effects of cancer treatments (like chemotherapy).
Fatigue and joint pain: Certain bacteria within our digestive tracts contribute to the deterioration of joints and tissue. Research shows that a healthier gut environment helps lower the risk of joint pain, swelling, and trouble moving in people with osteoarthritis and inflamed joints.
Mood disorders (depression, anxiety): Ever hear of the “gut-brain connection”? Your diet affects your microbiome and neurotransmitter activity, and therefore how you feel, your ability to handle stress and your energy levels. Dietary changes over the last century — including industrial farming, the use of pesticides and herbicides, and the degradation of nutrients in foods — are the primary forces behind growing mental health issues like depression. Low nutrient availability, inflammation and oxidative stress affect the neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which control your moods, ease tension and raise alertness. It’s also a two-way street when it comes to your gut and mood: Poor gut health contributes to mood problems, and high amounts of stress also damage your gut and hormonal balance.
Learning disabilities (ADHD, autism): Our bodies are interconnected systems, and everything we put in them, expose them to or do to them affects the whole person, including their growth, development and mental capabilities. ADHD and other learning disabilities have been tied to poor gut health, especially in infants and children. There seems to be an association between diet and psychiatric disorders due to metabolites of dietary components and enzymes encoded in our human genome that inhabit our guts. One of the most important factors seems to be establishing a healthy microbiome from birth, including a vaginal delivery ideally and being breastfed, which populates the newborn’s gut with the mother’s healthy bacteria.
Allergies, asthma and sensitivities: Certain beneficial bacteria lower inflammation, which lessens the severity of allergic reactions, food allergies, asthma or infections of the respiratory tract. This means stronger defence against seasonal allergies or food allergies and more relief from coughing, colds, the flu or a sore throat.
Obesity & Weight Gain
What does gut bacteria have to do with obesity? Although the underlying mechanisms are still not entirely clear, obesity is known to be associated with chronic low grade inflammation and hormonal changes that lead us to overeat:
The latest research suggests overeating and obesity might be tied to reductions in certain beneficial bacteria that populate a healthy microbiome. Certain studies have found that some obese individuals higher levels of two major classes of bacteria — bacteroides and firmacutes. These can cause increases in inflammatory, metabolic endotoxins, plus decreased mucus lining the intestinal wall and therefore more gut permeability. The gut microbiota also contributes to the retention of fat mass, and bacterial gut changes have been shown to reduce leptin sensitivity (meaning we feel satisfied less easily).
Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD): IBD is a term used to describe hard-to-treat disorders causing bloody
What next: Contact Sheena hendon Health and we can discuss ways of supporting a good microbiome and or ways to test your microbiome by CDSA stool testing or SmartDNA