Your brain makes you human. It is certainly not your cells that make you so. Confused? Consider this: there are more bacterial cells in and on our bodies than there are cells of which we are made. There are between 40 trillion and more than 100 trillion bacterial cells cohabiting with each of us while only 30 trillion human cells comprise our bodies. As an ecological community, a “biome,” we are the minor player in our own existence, being more bacteria than human. [i] [ii]
These microbes are tinier than we are and so make up our microbiomes. They respect us because we extend such bountiful hospitality. They show their appreciation by helping us live a healthy life.
Your microbiome stretches far and wide, split into subsets associated with the mouth, small intestine, large intestine (colon), vagina, placenta, and different regions of the skin. Each of these microbiomes serves a specific purpose by providing balance to their specific location. The symbiotic relationship between us and them usually works in our favor. But the healthful balance can go awry as is most often seen within the largest microbiome, the gastrointestinal microbiome. Disturbance within and alteration of the capability of the gut microbiome is termed “dysbiosis.”
Research into the origins of complicated diseases, including inflammatory, autoimmune, metabolic, cancerous, and neurodegenerative diseases, has come to associate many of them with intestinal dysbiosis. This is not to say that dysbiosis alone is the absolute cause of these diseases, but if it is not, it can at least be a potent contributing factor. Alterations within the composition of the gut microbiome caused by diet and a multitude of other factors simultaneously alter the functional capabilities of the microbiome.[iii]
On the other hand, a healthy microbiome reduces the risk of
· heart disease
· chronic kidney disease
· mental health and mood conditions
· autoimmune diseases
· irritable bowel diseases
· cognitive deterioration
Broad diversity of microbes in the gut creates a healthy microbiome that supports health and longevity. However. the reduced diversity of the gut microbiota in Western populations instead creates roadblocks to health not seen in populations living traditional lifestyles.
What factors have driven the Western loss of microbial diversity? It turns out microbiota-accessible carbohydrates (MACs, not to be confused with Big Macs) found in dietary fiber are crucially involved in shaping our microbial ecosystem.[iv] Humans adapted to a pre-agricultural diet and environment that supplied 150 grams of dietary fiber each day. We have notably reduced daily fiber intake today to just 15 to 30 grams while also adding fat and simple carbohydrates.
Earlier studies that attempted to permanently alter the gut microbiome through supplementation with probiotics proved futile. The expansion of healthful colonies and the reduction in the size of pathogenic colonies seen during supplementation periods disappeared within one to two months of cessation of probiotic supplementation. The pre-study balance between probiotic and pathogenic bacterial ratios eventually reestablished themselves.
Newer research shows that permanent change in the intestinal microbiome accompanies a permanent change in dietary habits.[v] [vi] [vii].[viii] or perhaps we should say “semi-permanent.” The bacteria of your gut microbiome are chameleonlike, shrinking and expanding in number and type and altering their own gene expression to accommodate the diet you regularly consume. The gut microbiome can rapidly respond to alterations in diet. Some of these changes occur on the first day of dietary alteration.
An animal-based diet stimulates heavier secretions of bile. Bile-tolerant microorganisms proliferate and alter their gene expression to catabolize the large amounts of protein and fat that accompany the diet. Clusters of microbes involved in vitamin synthesis increase. At the same time, microbes required to fully metabolize and ferment dietary fibers are greatly reduced in the face of a lack of dietary fiber.
In response to a plant-based diet, adaptive alterations in the microbiota occur that increase microbes that extract and synthesize amino acids from plants in order to provide proteins necessary for human survival. Bile-tolerant microbes shrink in number as those that are adapted to fermenting fiber increase.
Foodborne microbes from both animal-centric or plant-centric diets transiently colonize the gut, including bacteria, fungi, and even viruses. And, although a high-protein, high-fat diet is a superior weight loss diet, the major changes in the microbiota related to animal-based and plant-based diets are not meaningless or innocuous. For example, the high-fat, animal-based Western-style diet increases the abundance and activity of Bilophila wadsworthia, a bacterium linked to inflammatory bowel disease.[ix] [x]
Colonization by the milieu of intestinal microbiota is nevertheless changeable under the influence of diet and rapidly so. Such changeability is due to the tenuous grip bacterial colonies have on the intestinal lining. Colonization is limited to the outer “loose” mucus layer of the gastrointestinal tract. The microbes interact with the diverse oligosaccharides of mucoproteins secreted by the mucous membranes.[xi] The nature of the loose environment lying atop cells that will be replaced every 5 days or so implies that bacterial colonization of the gastrointestinal tract is dynamic and subject to change as dietary conditions change.
Ultimately, our microbiome reflects our lifestyle and diet is part of one’s lifestyle. We need to enact healthy diets over the long term if we are going to grow and sustain a healthy microbiome. What this means for us is that eating a better diet rich in plant foods and their fiber will generate a more diverse microbiome supportive of good health.
To build and support a healthy gut microbiome:
Eat a wide variety of foods: This leads to a diverse microbiome, which is supportive of good health. In particular, fresh vegetables – and a broad selection of them – plus fresh, whole fruits can promote the growth of healthy Bifidobacteria. Legumes and whole grains are also good sources of gut-friendly fibers but are conversely loaded with toxic, gut-destroying lectin proteins. Be sure you soak, cook, ferment or otherwise heavily prepare legumes and grains to diminish or eliminate their lectin content.[xii] [xiii] [xiv]
Eat fermented foods: Fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, natto, pickles, and kefir all contain healthy bacteria, mainly Lactobacilli, and can reduce the amount of disease-causing species in the gut.[xv]
Get a boost from prebiotics: Prebiotics are fibers that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria. Prebiotic-rich foods include artichokes, bananas, asparagus, oats, root vegetables, and more. Nearly every vegetable contains some form of fiber that will serve a prebiotic function.
Breastfeed newborns: Breastfeeding provides the second major inoculation of the human GI tract. Mother’s first secretions are loaded with probiotics. Breastfeeding sets up the baby’s immunity and fuels healthy growth deep into his or her future. Breastfed children for at least six months.
Pile on the veggies: Vegetarian diets may help reduce levels of disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli and Bilophila wadsworthia, as well as helping tamp inflammation and manage cholesterol.[xvi] [xvii]
Pile on the polyphenols: Polyphenols are the colorful pigments of plants. They are potent antioxidants and came to fame after being discovered in red wine, green tea, pine bark, pomegranates, dark chocolate, olive oil and numerous peppers and other fruits. They can not only help combat intestinal and whole-body inflammation but also are broken down by the healthful members of the microbiome, stimulating colonization.[xviii] [xix]
Take a probiotic supplement as long as you must: Live probiotics can help restore the gut to a healthier state after dysbiosis.[xx] Be sure to use high potency, multi-strain supplements, taken 45 minutes after a meal. Keep in mind though that long term restoration of a healthy gut microbiome requires long term dietary change for the better.
If you must take antibiotics: You will want to restore diversity of the gut microbiome and boost colony size as quickly as possible after using antibiotics to avoid bodyweight gain, metabolic syndrome, cardiac, neurological or other problems reliant on a foundation of dysbiosis. Take a potent probiotic supplement and consume fermented foods (e.g. yogurt, kefir, miso, kimchi, natto, sauerkraut, etc.) between doses of antibiotics to minimize long term bacterial suppression of healthy bacteria.
Get good sleep and reduce stress: Emotional and physical fatigue and stress, especially when combined, diminish the diversity of gut microbes, reduce beneficial bacteria in variety and colony size, and allow harmful bacteria to expand and proliferate.[xxi]
Sidestep artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame can reduce the amounts of beneficial bacteria in the gut. These microbial changes are believed to be the reason why artificial sweeteners drive glucose intolerance more than natural sugars.[xxii]
Finally, follow three simple rules:
1. If you can’t recognize it on your plate as a whole food, don’t eat it.
2. If it comes out of a box, bag, or can, don’t eat it.
3. Remember, eating is a duty, one must get one’s recreation elsewhere.
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[viii] Walker AW, et al. Dominant and diet-responsive groups of bacteria within the human colonic microbiota. ISME J. 2011;5:220–230.
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