Looking after your Microbiome
The microbiome is getting a lot more coverage lately, for too long it was little understood and largely ignored. Research is ramping up and as more research gets done we understand this beautiful system and it’s importance to our health can no longer be ignored.
When I trained as a nutritional therapist I was taught the importance of a healthy gut and liver. If you cannot digest (break-down food and absorb the nutrients it contains) how can you be healthy. By the same token if your liver cannot process and get rid of toxins your health will suffer. We understood the importance of gut bacteria or gut flora and knew that keeping the gut flora healthy was a sure way to stay healthy.
We now know that the microbiome is vast and complex, it is in us and on us. Found on our skin, in our mouth, bladder and colon. In the vagina, it provides babies with beneficial bacteria as they pass through the birth canal.
Research is showing just how complex this system is, it’s made up of more than 100 trillion micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi. Each of us has a unique microbiome composition. It is not only our microbiome that can impact on our health but how these micro-organisms express their genes. Their gene expression is more important than our own, which makes you wonder who is in charge.
I have wanted to write about the microbiome but felt a bit overwhelmed because it is such a BIG topic. So here is my concise (as can be) explanation of the gut microbiome, why it’s important to keep it healthy and how to do that. When I mention the gut I am referring to the large intestine (colon) where the microbiome is found.
Why a Healthy Microbiome Matters
The microbiome ensures important vitamins are absorbed from the food we eat.
Immune cells line the gut lining so if the lining is full of healthy happy bugs are immune system is more likely to be able to support us.
Research is showing that there is a link between our gut microbiome and our mood. Especially the link between depression and social anxiety and particular gut bugs.
Yes some of our gut bugs can make us gain weight or loss weight (lots of money is being spent on this research because there is money in the weight-loss business)
They can help lower unhealthy triglyceride levels and they impact C-Reactive protein which is linked to inflammation so help to lower inflammation.
They can help to regulate our appetite and reduce sugar cravings.
A healthy gut microbiome could make you happier, healthier, thinner, free from inflammation and pain, that should be motivation enough to take good care of it.
Our Internal Garden
It can help if we think of our microbiome as our own special garden. If we ignore and neglect it we can hardly expect it to flourish. We may unintentionally damage it as one would with pesticides or herbicides.
We can give it a bit of care by feeding it. Or we may decide we want a few select plants without understanding the complexity of all that makes up a healthy garden.
If you want your garden to flourish you need to take good care of the soil and we can do this through the food choices we make. It may take longer and require more effort but it is the best way to have a healthy garden that flourishes and can take good care of us.
Keeping the Mircobiome Healthy
1. Avoid Damaging the Microbiome
Firstly you would want to avoid anything that could damage the microbiome. Some things to consider and try to avoid or reduce are:
Anti-biotic soaps (also impacts skin macrobiotic)
A diet high in sugar and processed foods
2. Nurture it with Fermented Foods
Many traditional cultures in the world contain some naturally fermented food products. But these foods are often an acquired sour or acid taste, the flavour can be strong and pungent. As we have become more addicted to sweeter flavours, the flavour of fermented foods has become less appealing, they fell out of favour. Very few fermented foods are sweet and if you do find any that are be aware that they may have been sweetened.
Fermented foods occur when natural bacteria and yeasts are used to convert the starch in vegetables or natural sugars into alcohol or acids.
They create the right acidic environment for the microbiome and also produce beneficial bacteria that restore and balance the gut microbiome. It’s a powerful combination of providing the food and creating the right environment. That is why they have gained so much popularity.
They can also help make certain foods easier to digest. For example, when milk is fermented into kefir, yoghurt or cheese it creates lactic acid-producing bacteria which help digest lactose that is why some people struggle with milk and cream but do better with fermented dairy products.
Wheat can be easier to digest if it is eaten as a sourdough bread rather than regular bread using bakers yeast. The starter helps to breakdown the wheat making it easier to digest.
Legumes such as soy when fermented are easier to digest and able to absorb the beneficial nutrients. These include miso, tempeh and natto (not for the faint-hearted) or soy sauce as a seasoning. I prefer to eat soy fermented.
3. Feed it
Prebiotic fibre is the food that the microbiome needs to thrive. This fibre cannot be digested but it is fermented in the large intestine by the microflora. This creates Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA) that are used as a source of fuel for the microflora.
These SCFA also help to improve the health of the intestine lining, aid proper digestion and lower the pH of the colon making it an unfavourable environment for pathogenic bacteria.
Now while it is nifty that the probiotic supplement you may buy has some prebiotic fibre it feels like a bit of a selling point. Some of the foods high in prebiotic fibre are not very common foods and we don't eat them regularly.
So while probiotics are very useful all fibre from natural plants will keep the large intestine healthy. The amount of fibre we eat in a processed Western Diet is far lower than that traditionally eaten. Eating whole vegetables and fruits is the best way to increase your fibre intake.
Lists of prebiotic foods vary but here are some more commonly eaten foods that are rich in prebiotic fibre:
bananas (slightly underripe)
Inulin and FOS are two forms of prebiotic fibre commonly mentioned but there is also another one called Beta Glucans.
Research has shown that this type of fibre is beneficial for reducing cholesterol by helping to get rid of excess circulating cholesterol. Studies have also shown that Beta Glucans support the immune system. This fibre is found in the cell wall of cereal grains particularly rich in oats and barley. It is also present in mushrooms and seaweeds.
There are foods or food combinations that can assist the microbiome, for example, natural yoghurt and banana. Yoghurt is a probiotic-rich food and banana provides beneficial prebiotic fibre.
Sleep and Exercise
Ongoing long term stress can impact the microbiome, finding stress coping mechanism is very useful for keeping the microbiome happy and healthy.
Sleep is not just important for us but also for our microbiome as is exercise. Exercise can help to increase butyric acid one of the SCFA that help to create the right acidic environment for the microbiome to flourish in.
Changing your Food Choices and FODMAP Diet
If you decide to increase the amount of fermented food and prebiotic-rich foods in your diet don’t be surprised if things get a bit exciting. As your colon adjusts to this increase in foods rich in microflora and feeding them prebiotic-rich food can cause some discomfort with bloating and flatulence occurring. It’s a bit like a party with a whole lot of hot smelly air.
Best to start with small amounts and make the changes slowly. For some who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) having a diet rich in certain fibre, especially prebiotic fibre can make their IBS worse. To avoid this there is a specific diet that helps to rectify this called FODMAP, which excludes prebiotic foods and many other beneficial foods. The only time to consider following a diet like this in with the help of a practitioner.