We each inherit a specific collection of bacteria and microbes at birth – the most important of which we receive through the birth canal and subsequently in our mothers breast milk.
This early collection of bacteria and microbes forms the foundation of our gut microbiome and is shaped by the foods we eat and our environments. While our microbiome is thought to stabilize by the age of 3 it continues to be shaped based on the make up of our diets, as well as our environments and our exposure to toxins and medications, and the sharing of bacteria with our partners and friends.
There is much we can do to help maintain the health of the ecosystem within our gut – simply through our diet and lifestyle alone.
If you are in good health, eat a balanced diet including plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and healthy fats and lead an active lifestyle then it is likely that your gut is in reasonably good health – and awareness and consistency in your diet and lifestyle alone should suffice.
If however you are suffering from inflammation, digestive disorders or food intolerance or have taken a prolonged course of antibiotics in the last few months or year then
you may have cause for concern. You can take our gut health assessment here to get a clearer indication.
10 Ways to Maintain Optimal Gut Health
If you are concerned about your gut health you will be pleased to hear that we can influence the make up of our microbiota unlike our human genome – and our microbiome contains one hundred times more genes than our human genome, leaving the potential to influence this genome significantly.
While scientists and researchers tell us they are still many years off understanding exactly what a health microbiome looks like (and that this may differ for each of us) they are in agreement that more diversity in our microbes generally means a healthier gut.
There are also certain strains and proportions of bacteria and microbes that are associated with bad lifestyles, obesity and chronic disease – which tend to thrive on poor diets, and that we should make every effort to limit.
Based on what we know, here are the most effective ways to influence your microbiome.
1. Cut Out The Junk Food
Sugar in our diet feeds all the wrong types of bacteria – strains that we want to keep in check. A diet high in sugar only leads to the growth of these undesirable bacteria at the expense of the ‘good’ bacteria we want to promote. Further more a study at Oregon State University found that altered gut bacteria as a result of a high-sugar diet, appeared to impact “cognitive flexibility,” in our ability to adjust to changing situations – and also showed an impairment of early learning for both long-term and short-term memory.
Its also worth noting that sugar is addictive and refined sugar contains no nutrients –only calories which are quickly absorbed briefly raising blood sugar levels – but causing hunger and further cravings as they crash.
Concerns over the health effects of artificial sweeteners have long been raised – and that consuming them prompts hunger and further cravings when the expected sugar hit doesn’t arrive – however recent studies have shown that artificial sweeteners also harm the balance of our gut bacteria – promoting growth in the undesirable strains of bacteria associated with obesity and diabetes – as well as inflaming the gut lining.
Processed foods – (defined as foods prepared with chemical additives or processes to alter the flavour or shelf life) – are extremely harmful to your gut bacteria as a result of the sugars, chemical additives, preservatives they contain. How to identify which foods are processed? Simply put – anything that only comes in a packet – or as Michael Pollan said; “Anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food” The simplest way to check if you should be avoiding something is if you don’t recognise any ingredient on the label.
Its also important to note that preservatives are added to most processed and packaged foods to inhibit or prevent the processes of oxidation and bacterial growth. These additives are essentially designed to kill bacteria – which is what they do to your gut microbiome when you eat them. Avoid!
2. Eat More Plants and Dietary Fiber
Plants are an essential part of our diet and should comprise the significant majority of what we eat if we are to restore our gut bacteria to health and diversity of our ancestors. The wider the variety of different fruits and vegetables will promote a greater diversity of our gut flora and provide all the fiber needed to feed our ‘good’ microbes and clean our gut. There are however some fruits and vegetables that are particularly beneficial – those high in insoluble fiber, anti-oxidants and last of all Phytonutrients: The skins of most vegetables contain phytonutrients – which naturally occurring bioactive chemicals that give fruits and vegetables their colours. These compounds all contribute to a healthy gut by promoting growth of the different strains and species of microbes such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli. In turn, the increased diversity of our gut microbes helps us extract more phytonutrients from our diet promoting further growth and increasing the absorption of these beneficial compounds by our bodies.
3. Avoid Antibiotics
Antibiotics are one of the most significant medical breakthroughs since their discovery and subsequent commercial production over 70 years ago. However their effectiveness in killing off bacterial infections sadly has a similar effect on many of our commensal microbes – with some forms of broad spectrum antibiotics wreaking havoc on our gut flora.
If your doctor does recommend a course of antibiotics – feel free to discuss how necessary they are and if in doubt seek a second opinion. Meanwhile if you are given a course of antibiotics we recommend supplementing the course with probiotics or fermented foods
4. Embrace Dirt
For nearly all our history we’ve lived in close contact with the earth – less than 100 years ago more than half of us in the west worked on farms and helped bring in the harvest. The vast majority of the food we ate came directly from the farm unwashed with the soil clinging to it.
Soil is rich in micro organisms and minerals – which is how plants get their nutrients. The unique soil based probiotic organisms are one of the key components that provide powerful nutrients to plants – much in the same way we depend on the microbes in our gut to help us digest and extract nutrients from our food.
In fact other mammals intentionally consume soil – and while until recently we were eating food straight from the ground and drinking from lakes, rivers and streams – Today, we have lost this source that was so healthy for our ancestors.
5. Take a Probiotic
There is much hype around probiotics. Walk down the dairy section in any supermarket and there will be dozens of products competing for shelf space claiming all sorts of health benefits as a result of their added probiotics. However there is little if any credible evidence to support many of their claims, while many probiotic products and supplements don’t contain the sufficient quantities or diversity to effectively reach and establish themselves in the gut.
Unless you are taking or have recently taken a course of antibiotics – or have a known condition and received medical advice recommending a course of probiotics we believe a better and cheaper option is to top up on probiotics through fermented foods and cultured dairy products (see below).
6. Eat Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are foods that have been preserved with the help of bacteria or yeast – resulting in an altered state. Fermentation is an ancient form of food preservation and practiced in almost every culture – with common popular fermented foods including cheese, bread, wine, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, Kefir and Kombucha. If you have the time you can make your own fermented foods, otherwise be sure to inspect the source carefully to ensure they still contain live cultures and hasn’t been pasturised.
7. Lower Your Stress
When you feel stressed, your body will discharge natural steroids and adrenaline, and your immune system will release inflammatory cytokines. This happens whether the threat is real or imaginary. If you suffer from prolonged stress, your immune response will over react and will continually be sending inflammatory signals around your body and your gut. In one study stress was found to be as harmful as a bad diet
Our microbiome helps to regulate our immune system and they work very closely together to fight unwanted invaders and keep us free of infection. However, a chronic immune response such as one caused by prolonged stress affects the health of our gut microbiome.
Here are 14 ways to reduce stress and enjoy better gut health.
8. Get A Good Nights Sleep
A Good nights sleep helps us maintain healthy gut bacteria – while a lack of sleep disrupts our gut bacteria.
When our circadian rhythm is disrupted either as a result of irregular sleep patterns, shift work or jet lag, this upsets the health of our gut bacteria. A study of travellers with irregular sleep patterns as a result of jet lag showed an increase in a strain of bacteria more prevalent in people with obesity and diabetes. Once the travellers returned to regular sleep patterns, the level of these undesirable bacteria also returned back to normal levels.
Interestingly it also appears our gut bacteria can sense what, when, and how much we eat, sending our signals to our brain and circadian system, affecting our metabolism and sleep.
9. Get Active
In addition to our diet, medications, stress and our sleep, exercise also plays an important role in the number and diversity of your gut microbiome. Regular Exercise This is an important component in kickstarting your gut microbe makeover. Many studies have shown the benefits of exercise on the health and diversity of our gut bacteria – there are even companies examining the fecal microbes of elite athletes in order to harvest probiotic strains.
Rather than being over ambitious we recommend any form of exercise that is easy to do regularly and fit in to your routine as consistency is key. If you can find sports or group activities this may help you become more motivated as they contain a social or competitive element which makes it more rewarding. If you are looking to maximise the gain many studies have found significant benefits from High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) which have been shown to significantly raise the calorie ‘after burn’ rate for many hours after the exercise.
The benefits of fasting to your gut bacteria and to your health in general have emerged only recently. A recent study published in the National Academy of Sciences shows how fasting may help protect the gut microbiome and in turn protect the body by activating an anti-inflammatory response in your gut, protecting both you and your bacteria. While this research was conducted on fruit flies which express many of the same metabolism- related genes as humans, providing important clues about how our own gut microbiota and our metabolic systems operate.