Talk about the “microbiome” is definitely trending and on the rise! And many people are gaining interest in gut health and how to keep their gut bacteria happy. But first, let’s clear up some terminology.
The human microbiota includes ALL of the different types of microbial species that live in or on the human body including bacteria, fungi and viruses. The human microbiome is made up of the genes inside these microbial cells. While the terms are related, they aren’t interchangeable!
Did you know?
- Trillions (!) of cells make up the human microbiota, outnumbering our own cells tenfold!
- While the gut houses the largest population of gut microbiota, there are many others including the skin and respiratory tract! The placenta even has it’s own microbiome!
- The genetic information contained in the microbiota (aka microbiome) interact with our own cells and genes in ways we’re just beginning to understand. The immune system is one system that greatly benefits by having large populations of healthy bacteria. This is why associations have been found between healthy microbiota and resistance to colds and flus.
- Our gut bacteria play a role in nutrition as well, producing important vitamins such as vitamin K.
- Benefits of a healthy microbiota extend well beyond gut health. Research has found associations between mood, weight, asthma, allergies and inflammation just to name a few.
How to Build a Healthy Microbiome
- It probably begins in the womb! Several studies have found that taking probiotics during pregnancy can reduce an infant’s risk of developing eczema (See here, here and here ) which suggests that the Mom’s bacterial influence starts before birth. How best to do this? Current studies have looked at the effect of supplementing with Lactobacillus species, but hopefully future research will look at a variety of strains found in fermented foods as well.
- Breastmilk is Best! We all know breastmilk is best for babies, but researchers have found that the oligosaccharides (type of sugar) found in breastmilk are excellent food for our microbiota, especially Bifidobacteria infantis, a particularly beneficial strain of bacteria. How neat is that? Read more about breastmilk and the microbiome here.
- Limit Sugar and Put more Plants on your Plate. Our gut bacteria need a fuel source, and fiber rich plants are the best. Foods high in sugar are quickly digested and absorbed, never making it to the lower digestive tract where we house most of our bacteria. The best foods are those high in resistant starches; these foods “resist digestion” by humans, serving as an excellent food source for our microbiota. Read all about adding resistant starches to your diet here!
- Include a Variety of Fermented foods. Fermentation was once a primary method of food preservation, which had the side benefit of providing us with a reliable and regular source of dietary probiotics. A lot has changed in the past century and we now rely more on refrigeration, canning and pickling to preserve our food. Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kombucha and fermented vegetables (read more HERE). Add them to your diet on a mostly daily basis and include a wide variety. Diversity rules when it comes to our microbiome.
- Limit Exposure to Antibiotics and Anti-Microbials. Antibiotics can be life-saving, but almost everyone agrees that they’re overused in both humans and animals. A significant portion of the world’s antibiotic are used in agriculture, (that number is estimated to be 75% in Canada) so do your best to choose meats from animals grown without the use of antibiotics. When possible, the best way to do this is to connect with a local farmer who isn’t raising animals on a commercial scale. The rules around antibiotic use in agriculture are changing over the next few years as the government tries to reduce antibiotic resistance, which will hopefully mean safer choices for consumers.
How do I Know if my Microbiome is Healthy?
We’re really just starting to learn about they types of microbiota that make up a healthy microbiome so no one can say with certainty what is healthy and what isn’t. Some bacteria may not be beneficial in the strictest sense, but neither are they pathogenic. Others may be more concerning, contributing to symptoms of IBS and IBD.
Commom symptoms of aa disrupted microbiota, aka ‘Dysbiosis’ can include:
- Diarrhea and/or Constipation
- Reflux or Indigestion
- Rectal Itching
- Recurrent vaginal infections such as yeast infections
Dysbiosis is becoming very common, especially if you have any of the risk factors listed here. The good news is that dysbiosis is usually very treatable and responds very well to a combination to naturopathic interventions including dietary changes and supplementation.