Make friends with your germs
Microbiome is the current buzzword today. Not only among dietitians and scientists, but the public and media are digging into this mysterious health topic as well. Microbiome refers to an invisible world of bacteria living in our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts – the healthy germs in our gut. Thanks to emerging research, spurred by the National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, our germs are finally gaining the positive attention they deserve. And it’s about time, considering there are trillions of bacteria and other microbes inhabiting our bodies, accounting for about 3 pounds in our gut! In fact, with microbial cells outnumbering human cells by about ten to one, we are physically more microbe than human.
While many of us have been raised to think about bacteria and germs as having a negative impact on health – causing disease, making us sick, or just grossing us out – this network of bacteria in our gut is actually essential to maintaining optimum health. The microbiome helps to promote normal function of our digestive tract, which is where all food and drink pass through. It also protects the body from infection, creates enzymes and vitamins, and regulates metabolism and the immune system.
Now, of course, not all bacteria and microbes in our body are health promoting. The microbiome is a very complex ecosystem comprised of both beneficial and harmful microorganisms. There are some specific species of bacteria in the human gut that appear to be linked to obesity and related metabolic complications including insulin resistance, high blood sugar levels, increased blood pressure, and high cholesterol. While scientists are still searching for a direct link between diet, the intestinal microbiome, and disease development, there are three things we know for sure: 1) the more microbial diversity in our gut the better, 2) what we eat has a significant effect on our gut bacteria profile, and 3) when we change our diet, we can see rapid shifts in the health of our microbiome.
So what should we be feeding our gut microbes? This question is being investigated as we speak by numerous scientists and dietitians across the globe. While there are no firm dietary guidelines yet to define the best way to improve our gut microbiota through food, everything that is known to this point supports five key recommendations.
5 Ways to Better Your Bacteria
1. Eat a more plant-based diet – Make it a meatless Monday, and better yet, a Tofurky Tuesday!
2. Hit your daily fiber target – That means consuming about 25g/day for women and 38g/day for men.
3. Make fruits and vegetables your go-to snack – Most are portable and don’t even require utensils.
4. Include probiotics in your diet – Think fermented foods like coconut kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and tempeh.
5. Don’t forget about prebiotics too – Foods containing fructans help the beneficial bacteria in our lower gut flourish. Some of the best sources are artichokes, onions, garlic, raspberries, beans, asparagus, watermelon, bananas, and pears.
To dive deeper into the science behind our intricate network of gut bacteria, take a look at the following resources. And don’t forget: not all germs are bad… some may even be our best medicine!
1. National Institutes of Health. NIH Program: Human Microbiome Project Overview.
2. Khanna S, Tosh, P. A Clinician’s Primer on the Role of the Microbiome in Human Health and Disease. Mayo Clin Proc. January 2014:89(1):107-114.
3. Albenberg L, Wu, G. Diet and the Intestinal Microbiome: Associations, Functions, and Implications for Health and Disease. Gastroenterology 2014;146:1564-1572.