Gut health and the importance of the “friendly” bacteria that make up your microbiome is a prominently featured health topic lately. Everything from weight loss to allergies is being tied to your gut health. So just what do these tiny bacteria do?
“Our bodies have about 100 trillion microorganisms that help us in ways we didn’t even realize 20 years ago,” said Michelle Eckroth, MD, a pediatrician who specializes in pediatric integrative and functional medicine at Samaritan Heartspring Wellness Center. “As scientists study the role that gut health and the microbiome plays in overall health they are learning just how important those microorganisms are. It’s a synergistic relationship — if we feed them properly, they will help take care of us.”
The Role of the Microbiome
Each body area like the skin, mouth, underarms, gut and more, have unique bacterial colonies based on the location where they live. These specific colonies living in specific locations of your body are a microbiome.
Gut bacteria live in the digestive tract and are found primarily in the large intestine or colon. After the body absorbs the nutrients it needs from food in the small intestine, the “leftovers” move into the colon. That remaining fiber feeds the gut bacteria. As the bacteria ferments this non-digestible fiber it creates short chain fatty acids which nourish the colon cells and decrease the risk of gastrointestinal cancers, modulate the immune system and help decrease inflammation throughout the body.
“Research suggests that inflammation is a significant factor in most chronic diseases,” said Eckroth. “Almost two-thirds of the immune system lives in the intestinal tract. When we feed our gut microbiome the things that it needs to be healthy, we can improve our own health.”
Research published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology found that people with rheumatoid arthritis and allergic diseases had altered gut microbiota, indicating that the gut regulates inflammation elsewhere in the body.
“The microbiome is a complex ecosystem that affects many of the body’s systems,” said Eckroth. “Broad-spectrum antibiotics, chronic constipation, chronic maldigestion, stress and the standard American diet, which is low in fiber and high in fat and simple carbohydrates, can all create an environment that reduces the effectiveness of the microbiome.”
Changing Your Microbiome for Health
Thinking of your gut bacteria as its own ecosystem may seem odd. But Eckroth notes that the number of microorganism cells in the body outnumber human cells by about 10:1, so maybe taking care of your gut isn’t such a bad idea after all.
There are hundreds of different types of bacteria that live in the gut, but an article published in the journal Genome Medicine reported that the specific combination of bacteria isn’t as important as having a wide variety that is able to carry out its duties and be resilient to change. Over time, different bacteria are introduced to the body depending on early life exposure, where you live, your genetics and what you eat. So making gut-friendly food choices is one important area that you can control, and can determine how healthy the bacteria are that make up your microbiome.
“When you give your gut the right foods, it feeds the friendly bacteria and helps them grow to out compete the bad bacteria,” said Eckroth. “Our bodies need to have a thriving diverse microbiome.”
According to Eckroth, highly processed foods and sugars can damage the friendly bacteria in the gut. But transitioning to whole foods with plenty of fiber will feed the good bacteria and help them thrive.
What to Eat for Better Bacteria
Changing your diet can improve your microbiome in as little as 24 hours. Eckroth recommends these four steps to get you started:
1. Eat Whole Foods
Eat 5-7 servings a day of a rainbow variety of vegetables. Eat 1-2 servings a day of fruit. Buy organic produce and pasture raised or grass fed organic meat when possible. Minimize processed foods and sugar.
2. Eat Prebiotic Foods
Prebiotics contain fiber that you don’t digest, but bacteria love to eat and help feed a healthy microbiome. Foods rich in prebiotics include brined vegetables, dandelion leaves, jicama, Jerusalem artichokes, and raw foods such as garlic, onion, leeks and asparagus. Whole oats, whole barley (not pearled), beans, bananas and other fruits and vegetables also contain prebiotics. Cooking can destroy the beneficial compounds that feed your microbiome so eat some raw foods every day. If it helps you eat a higher quantity, try steaming vegetables until they are bright in color but still crunchy to retain a moderate amount of healthful prebiotic material.
3. Eat Probiotic Foods
Probiotics are foods with bacteria already present because it is being used to ferment the food. Yogurt (look for unsweetened or low sugar varieties), kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, natto, miso and kombucha. One tablespoon a day of a probiotic food is enough to introduce healthy bacteria. Eat a variety of fermented foods to introduce new bacteria.
4. Take a Probiotic Supplement in the Short Term
According to Eckroth, the bacteria in a probiotic supplement don’t take up residence permanently in the gut but are a good way to temporarily improve the number of friendly bacteria while you work on improving your diet. Look for a probiotic supplement from a reputable company that has the ConsumerLab or USP seal on the label.
Read more about probiotics and maintaining their benefits.