Our gut microbiome – the name given to the sum total of all the bacteria living in our digestive tracts – is now considered by the scientists who study it to function as it’s own “organ,” acting in many surprising ways in the body. There are some seriously interesting links between the gut microbiome, inflammation, the so called “gut-brain axis” (i.e., anxiety that often couples with digestive health symptoms).
Poor microbial diversity, low levels of beneficial bacterial strains, and/or high levels of harmful bacterial strains have been shown to play a role in irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis), metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, and even depression and anxiety.
There are a ton of interesting articles to read up on more of this background information, but my goal here is to outline some dietary habits that both cultivate optimal bacterial diversity and function to promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria (in with the good, out with the bad!). The good news is that this advice is pretty consistent to what we already know about diet and overall health! Here’s the scoop:
- Eat a diet with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables! Isn’t this the diet advice we hear most often? A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and beans is also a diet rich in fiber, antioxidants, and polyphenols. An incredibly interesting study from 2014 compared individuals fed an entirely animal based diet versus people fed an entirely plant based (vegan) diet over the course of 10 days. They found the vegan group displayed an increase in bacterial diversity, while the all-animal diet group displayed an increase in some detrimental species. This included Bilophilia strains, which have been associated with increased incidence of inflammatory bowel disease and heart disease. Whoa!
- Include fermented foods in your diet. Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, tempeh, sauerkraut, and raw vinegar.
- Limit highly processed foods. Fresh, plant-based foods are best for your gut microbiome. So what is the absolute opposite of that? Foods out of bags and boxes with tons of additives you can hardly pronounce. Consumption of a highly processed diet has been linked with low bacterial diversity and high levels of harmful bacteria.
- Garlic – not just for warding off vampires – also wards off harmful colonic bacteria. Consuming garlic and other fresh herbs frequently also help support a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
- Probiotic supplements may help, particularly if you’re on or recently have been on antibiotics. Look for a brand with several different strains. Examples of beneficial strains include: Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, L. acidophilus, B. Bifidum, L. reuteri, B. longum, and Streptococcus thermophilus.
Another important take away here is this: your gut microbiome, like every aspect of the human body, is quite resilient. There seems to be this idea among a lot of patients I talk to that if you take antibiotics, you’re dooming yourself to months of poor health due to the effects on the microbiome. This is simply not true. Now many studies have shown that bacterial diversity and balance improve quickly after completing a course of antibiotics and are pretty much back to normal within a few months. You can help this process by doing the above-mentioned things, so don’t fret too much (at least about this aspect) if you come down with a nasty bug and need antibiotics!
Photo credit: thwartedagain on Flickr