Our bodies are ecosystems. Just like a river, a forest, or a patch of soil in the garden, there are many microorganisms that live inside us.
Sometimes certain microorganisms make us sick, but on the whole our ecosystem of microbes helps us stay healthy. The human body’s largest population of microorganisms (including bacteria, fungi, viruses, microbes, etc.) live in the GI tract. This is our gut microbiome.
There is a lot of growing research on the microbiome—and for good reason. The gut microbiome is often called your second brain because it affects your mood, happiness, motivation, overall health, and neurological performance later in life. Microbes in your gut actually produce about 90% of the serotonin (your happiness neurotransmitter) in your body. When you have that “gut feeling” about something that might really be your microbiome looking out for you!
A healthy microbiome contributes to:
- Proper digestion
- Better absorption of nutrients
- A healthy immune system
- Steady blood sugar levels
- Lower levels of inflammation
- Improved heart health
- An overall sense of wellbeing
An unhealthy microbiome contributes to:
- Slowed digestion
- Bowel irregularity
- Autoimmune disorders
- Mood disorders
Most of us grew up thinking that we should avoid bacteria as much as possible. “Anti-bacterial” is printed all over our soaps, sanitizers, and household cleaners. But actually, not all bacteria are bad. Our health depends on lots of good and ambivalent bacteria and other microorganisms. It is important to protect and grow our good bacteria because when we do, the bad bacteria has no place to take hold. Our bodies have a beautiful way of regulating themselves. We don’t actually need massive amounts of hand sanitizer and bleach in our daily lives to stay healthy.
There are many things that you can do to strengthen your gut microbiome so that it can flourish.
So, how do we support our gut microbiome and allow it to flourish?
Short answer: adequate sleep, regular movement, time in the dirt, relationships with pets/animals, and eating nutrient dense food. It’s the simple list that always seems to show up for a healthy lifestyle. But here’s a little more about each one:
- Sleep at least eight hours a day. Growing research shows that sleep and the microbiome are interconnected. Lack of sleep is associated with a lack of gut health and microbiome diversity. Magical things happen in our bodies when we get enough rest.
- Incorporate daily exercise and movement. Studies show that daily exercise supports a diverse gut microbiome. Diversity is key in the health of all ecosystems! Movement can be as simple as a game of tag with your kids, a small gardening project or walking to your neighbor’s house instead of driving. Even 10 minutes of exercise can make a difference.
- Let your kids play in the soil. Growing research suggests that contact with soil and its microbiome is beneficial for the human microbiome. Plant a little home garden or volunteer at your local community garden to get your hands in the soil. (Pro tip: if your veggies were grown in organic soil, don’t peel the outside. Just give it a little rinse and bon appetit!)
- Get a dog. Dogs increase the diversity of bacteria and lower the diversity of fungi in the house. You may think of the grass and dirt the dog drags into the house as an annoyance, but he’s really just bringing the soil microbiome to you! One study shows that having a dog can improve the gut microbiome to the point that they reduce asthma and allergy risk in kids.
- Eat nutrient dense foods. Our bodies need good bacteria called probiotics to thrive inside our microbiome. Our bodies also need prebiotics to feed the probiotics. Eating more diverse and quality probiotics and prebiotics significantly contributes to a healthier microbiome. The classic American diet does not have many of the types of foods that contain pre- and probiotics, but nearly every traditional culture has some kind of fermented food or beverage. That’s a good cue for the importance of these kinds of foods!
Probiotics are found in fermented or “live” foods such as:
- Kefir (unsweetened fermented milk)
- Naturally fermented sauerkraut
- Pickled vegetables (Something fun you can do with your kids!)
- Miso soup (use hot, but not boiling water as boiling temperatures kill the good bacteria)
- Apple cider vinegar (with the “mother”)
- Naturally fermented soy sauce
- Coconut yogurt
- Plain, full fat yogurt
- MCT oil
- Kombucha (make sure you check out the label, because some kombucha companies add a lot of sugar to their products)
Prebiotics are found in most fruits and vegetables as well as many seeds.
Think fiber when you’re looking for prebiotic foods. Here are a few examples, but there are many more! (thanks Mark Hyman for this partial list):
- Brussels sprouts
- Dandelion greens
- Olives and olive oil
- Raw honey
Tip: Organic produce is always better as it has not been treated with pesticides that wipe out the beneficial microorganisms that live on produce.
Now for the flip side: what are some of the top things that we do or consume that hurt our microbiome?
- Antibiotics: Antibiotics do not discriminate which bacteria they kill, so good bacteria are wiped out along with the bad. Check out our article about the things you should know before taking antibiotics. If you do have to take an antibiotic make sure you really prioritize the behaviors and foods above. It can take a while to build back your microbiome, but it’s relatively simple.
- NSAIDS: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like Tylenol, Aspirin, etc.) can influence the balance of microbiota species in the microbiome. A surge or drop in a particular population in the microbiome can affect your body in many different ways that we don’t totally understand yet.
- Hormones: Conventional meat and milk often contain added hormones that are used to make animals put on weight faster and produce more milk. These hormones are passed on into our systems and can influence our microbiome.
- Acid blockers: Some studies show that heartburn or acid reflux medication slightly increases the risk of certain imbalances and infections in the gut.
- Endocrine disruptors and other chemicals: Many chemicals used to make plastic can interact with our hormones and microbiomes in harmful and unknown ways. When possible, choose products that are not packaged in plastic.
And of course, the food that hurts all other parts of our health also harms our microbiome. These unsupportive foods include:
- Sugar, especially high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, and artificial sweeteners
- Refined and inflammatory oils like corn, soy, vegetable
- Processed foods
- Refined grains
So who’s ready to run out and get some raw sauerkraut?! The growing body of research and literature that continues to show us the importance of the gut microbiome is super exciting! And if there wasn’t enough motivation to eat whole, living foods, hopefully this is your tipping point. Supporting your microbiome can be as fun as trying new foods, exploring with home fermentation, and playing in the dirt!