When we get sick, bacteria are often to blame. But did you know that certain bacteria are also the cause for keeping us healthy? This is referred to as the microbiome, or the internal ecosystem of bacteria that constantly evolves and changes depending on the food we eat and the lifestyle we lead.
How our microbiome develops
When we are born, our gastrointestinal tract is sterile, since a developing fetus is completely sealed off from its mother’s microbes in the womb. However, soon after we are born, microorganisms begin to accumulate. This starts with how we are born. Interestingly, babies born through C-section tend to have altered microbiomes and face more health risks than babies born vaginally. This includes a heightened risk for developing allergies, asthma and diabetes. The birth canal supplies newborns with the bacteria Lactobacillus, which helps babies digest milk and develop their immune system. Babies born via C-section instead attain their bacteria from the doctor’s hands.
Later on, our microbiome is influenced by the food we eat, the lifestyle we lead, our stress levels, the medications we take and the stage of our lives. Within a few years, our body proceeds to house trillions of microorganisms that make up what is called our microbiome. In fact, more bacteria make up our microbiome than the number of cells in our body, and they collectively weigh as much as our brain – about three pounds. A more diverse microbiome containing many different types of microbial species is considered beneficial for your health.
Our microbiome is made up of both helpful and potentially harmful bacteria. They cover our skin from head to toe and can vary depending on our skin temperature, texture and humidity. However, about 99% of our microbiome resides in our digestive tract alone. Just like our fingerprints, our microbiome sets us apart. It is one of the largest emerging areas of nutrition research, and yet much remains to be discovered.
An out of balance microbiome
In healthy individuals, good and bad bacteria exist together in harmony. However, if there is a disturbance in the balance, a state of dysbiosis occurs. This may make the body more susceptible to diseases including obesity, psoriasis, childhood-onset asthma, dementia, inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer and even cardiovascular disease.
The problem is that today’s Standard American Diet can promote an imbalanced gut flora. Processed and inflammatory foods along with insufficient fruits and vegetables characterize this diet. This diet reduces bacterial diversity and promotes a state of inflammation. The biggest dietary and lifestyle culprits that can harm our microbiome include:
- Hydrogenated oil
- Domestic meat
- Refined carbohydrates
- Trans fats
- Added sugars
- Low fiber intake
- Antibiotics and other medications
- Not enough sleep
Obesity in particular is associated with an out of balance gut microbiome. For example, the gut microbiome differs between obese and lean individuals in a significant way. Scientists have discovered an abundance of Prevotella, Firmicutes and methanogenic archaea in obese individuals, a lower diversity of bacteria and a higher level of enzymes that may increase the efficiency of extracting nutrients from the food we eat. Obesity is a significant risk factor for a host of issues including inflammation of the liver, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Other signs that point to your gut flora being out of balance include:
- Diarrhea, constipation and stomach cramping
- Anxiety or depression
- Inflammatory bowel diseases
A balanced microbiome
Diet plays a leading role in supporting a healthy microbiome, which influences the immune system, body weight, metabolism and more. There are certain foods that help promote growth of the good bacteria in our gut including:
- Fresh whole vegetables and fruit
- Probiotic-containing foods
- Prebiotic-containing foods
Feeding the good bacteria in our gut is key to maintaining a healthy gut flora. Besides prebiotics and probiotics, which we will go into, a vegetarian diet or one high in plant-based foods may promote a healthy and diverse microbiome. By some studies, a healthy microbiome has been linked to:
- Enhanced immune function
- Synthesis of vitamins like biotin and vitamin K
- Maintaining intestinal mucosa integrity
- Preventing harmful bacteria from colonizing
- Aiding digestion and elimination of bad bacteria
- Transforming and promoting excretion of toxic substances
- Reducing symptoms of Crohn’s Disease, IBS and other gut abnormalities
- Better brain function
- Healthy body composition
Probiotics: What you need to know
The chances are you have heard about probiotics before and know they are found in yogurt and over-the-counter supplements. Probiotics by definition are live, nonpathogenic bacteria (or friendly bacteria) that offer a health benefit by assisting the body’s naturally occurring gut flora. They challenge the immune system in healthy way and help make it stronger. They also help our body absorb certain vitamins and minerals including calcium, iron and vitamins A, D, K and E to name a few.
Probiotics are found in the following foods:
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut and pickles
Ways you can incorporate probiotics into your diet
Because probiotics are found in plant-based foods, there are a lot of creative ways to incorporate them into your diet, including:
- Adding a scoop of sauerkraut to salads, egg scrambles or as an accompaniment to proteins
- Swapping carbonated beverages like soda with kombucha
- Eating yogurt for breakfast and as a snack a few times per week
- Adding kefir to breakfast smoothies instead of milk
Prebiotics: What you need to know
Prebiotics, like probiotics, can help support a healthy microbiome. By definition, they are a type of fiber compound that passes the gastrointestinal tract undigested until reaching the colon, where they act as fertilizers that selectively stimulate the growth and activity of intestinal bacteria associated with health and wellbeing. The fermentation of these indigestible fibers causes production of short chain fatty acids (SCFA) that can be used by the body as a source of nutrition but also may be useful in treatment of many chronic gastrointestinal disorders, such as Chron’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Production of SCFA lowers the pH of the colon, which can help hinder the growth of some harmful bacteria. Additionally, SCFA may help stimulate immune cell activity.
Prebiotic foods are naturally a good source of fiber. It is important to introduce them into your diet slowly and in small amounts, especially if you are not used to them, in order to avoid bloating and gastrointestinal discomfort. A high fiber diet may help reduce the growth of pathogenic bacteria that thrive in a lower acidic environment.
Prebiotics are found in the following foods:
- Dandelion greens
Ways you can incorporate prebiotics into your diet
Prebiotics are found in foods that you can make both sweet or savory, so there are many creative ways to incorporate them into your diet, including:
- Dipping sliced raw jicama into homemade hummus made with garlic
- Adding dandelion greens to your egg scrambles and a handful to smoothies made with banana
- Roasting asparagus
- Adding onion as a flavor enhancer to stir-fry soups, dips and sauces
Incorporating more plant-based foods and those containing prebiotics and probiotics can help build a healthy and diverse microbiome. Other factors that may help include managing stress levels and getting sufficient sleep. Having a healthy microbiome can reduce your risk of developing certain diseases, such as obesity and gut or skin disorders. The result is a stronger immune system, better body composition and overall healthy digestion.
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