The Microbiome: Feeding Yourself or Your Bugs?
If you’ve traveled with me to a tropical island, you’ve most likely witnessed my slight bug phobia *apologies to those who’ve seen me encounter a bee.* But in this post I’m choosing to lean in to my fear *thank you Sheryl Sandberg* — I’ll shed light on the bugs that live in, on, and around all of us: the bugs that make up the microbiome.
Your body is composed of multiple systems that work together, and the goal is to keep these systems in synchrony. The gut plays a big role here. The gut nourishes the brain, which acts as the conductor of the choir to the rest of your body, keeping all systems in harmony. Maintaining a strong gut will have positive ripple effects on your physical and mental health, including symptoms like bloating, anxiety, brain-fog, or fatigue. This is a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ situation — the small daily choices you make that will add up overtime to make you feel better or worse.
In maintaining a healthy gut, an important system to understand is the microbiome. What exactly is the microbiome and why does it matter? As defined in the Nutrition Reviews scientific journal, “the human microbiota consists of the 10–100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells harbored by each person, primarily bacteria in the gut,” which is more specifically referred to as the gut-microbiome. These ‘bugs’ outnumber our own human cells by 10 to 1, which accounts for 5 pounds of your total body weight! “Our gut bacteria are responsible for breaking down many of the complex molecules found in foods such as meats and vegetables,” meaning they aid our digestion process (Microbiome Institute). These bugs also help “regulate our immune system, protect against bacteria that cause disease, and produce vitamins including B vitamins B12, thiamine and riboflavin, and vitamin K,” which are essential to strong immunity, high energy, a fast metabolism, and blood coagulation (The Human Microbiome, University of Washington). These bugs directly influence your daily bodily operations — so catering to them is quite important.
You might be asking yourself, ‘where do these bugs even come from?’ You get your first dose of microbes from your mother during child-birth, but as you age, environmental factors and diet affect your microbiome to be either beneficial to your health or increase your risk for disease (Microbiome, Harvard School of Public Health). To put it simply, your microbiome consists of both “good” and “bad” bug species. The good species are “symbiotic,” meaning they work in harmony with your body — a win-win situation — and the bad are “pathogenic,” meaning they promote disease (Microbiome, Harvard School of Public Health). “In a healthy body, pathogenic and symbiotic microbiota coexist without problems. But if there is a disturbance in that balance — brought on by [toxic food], infectious illnesses, certain diets, or the prolonged use of antibiotics or other bacteria-destroying medications — dysbiosis occurs” (Harvard School of Public Health). Dysbiosis manifests in negative symptoms (bloating, anxiety, brain fog) and leads to increased susceptibility to disease *in this case my bug-phobia is totally rational.*
A big part of what is in our control here is quite literally the food we choose to eat and how we manage environmental factors, including sanitation of living environment, environmental biodiversity, sleep quality, stress…more science on external factors that influence our microbiome here. In this post, we’ll focus on food: “research has shown a direct relationship between diet and the abundance of certain gut microbial communities” (The American Microbiome Institute). In short, we want to feed the good bugs the nutrients they need in order to sustain their populations. It is with this diversity of good bug populations that our overall health thrives.
Ever get a sweet or salty craving? You’ve just had dinner and you’re already thinking about dessert? *Think we’ve all been there.* The bugs in your gut-microbiome are influencing you here. The more you feed a specific bug population, the louder your cravings will become for the food that population depends on for survival — makes sense, right? “During bacterial metabolism of complex molecules [AKA, food], chemical signals are released that end up in our brains and can affect behavior” (The American Microbiome Institute). Let’s break that down: let’s call one of the bad bugs — the one influencing your late-night cravings — the “Night King” *see what I did there, GOT fans?* The Night King is hungry and thrives off of processed food. So come nightfall, he signals your brain that he wants an M&M, a scoop of ice cream, or a bag of chips. Each time you feed that craving, you’re feeding the bad bug population. We want to avoid nourishing this population — the Night King is not your friend. Alternatively, when you feed yourself whole foods (vegetables, healthy fats, lean meats), reducing processed foods along the way, you’ll notice a change in your cravings — the good bugs are now sending signals to your brain that they want more *queue avocado cravings.* Am I hammering this home? Don’t take my word for it: “recent research is beginning to unveil perhaps the most interesting influence the microbiome has on its host: behavior…The kinds of food we crave and taste good to us may also be dictated by the population in our guts, and may even be related to that population’s ability to utilize particular foods for energy” (The Microbiome Institute). It’s in our power to alter the way we taste and crave food. Moreover, we can reduce our negative symptoms *agitation, brain-fog, stomach-aches, low-energy* in the process.
So let’s feed the good bugs more of what they want, and the bad bugs less — because who would want the Night King’s army to take over their gut-microbiome?! *Apologies to any non-Game of Thrones fans.* The goal here is diversity: eating 30+ varieties of plants, vegetables, and fruits per week equates to a healthy microbiome *I know that sounds like a TON, but less than 10 types per week can actually be harmful to your microbiome.* Aim to stay above that 10-mark by adding more natural colors and flavors to your plate — and have fun along the way. Challenge yourself to try a new veggie or fruit each week. Remember, the microbes in your system are microscopic, so simply sprinkling a new spice like turmeric or cayenne pepper into your lunch once per week can feed a whole population of otherwise neglected good-gut bacteria!
A couple microbiome call-outs to consider:
FIBER: Prebiotics & Probiotics. Fiber is a popular term thrown around — but what does it actually do for you? There are two types of fiber: fermentable and non-fermentive. Fermentable fiber (also referred to as prebiotics) serves as fuel to the beneficial bacteria in your gut *food for the good bugs.* Some people are sensitive to prebiotic foods, so if you notice a sensitivity, it’s best to introduce these foods into your diet slowly — very.slowly. Non-fermentive fibers (referred to as probiotics) are beneficial to maintain healthy bacteria populations and a strong immune system. Often, prebiotics and probiotics come hand-in-hand in whole food form. A couple pre-and-probiotic infused foods include sauerkraut, chicory root, dandelion greens (try out roasted dandelion root tea), artichokes, garlic, onions, asparagus, miso, seaweed *who doesn’t love a seaweed salad on sushi-night? While you’re at it, order a miso-soup!* If you’re on the go, grab a kombucha for your daily dose of pre-and-probiotics (refer to how to identify an imposter kombucha here).
Microbiome No-Nos: Artificial sweeteners & processed foods. It will always be a *thank you, next* situation *who else has this song stuck in their head?* We’ve all heard this before, but it’s worth understanding the science behind why these foods are not good for us, or for our microbiome. Specific microbes activate or inactivate food allergies, and processed foods feed the bad microbes. Ever wonder why you become sensitive or allergic to foods that never used to hurt your stomach as a child? In the words of Dr. Mark Hyman, “your diet, the way you live, and the medications you take can injure your gut. They change the bacteria and damage the gut’s lining (the critical barrier that keeps your immune system from having to deal with all the garbage, toxins, and allergens inside your intestinal tract). This damage is called a leaky gut. And so the food particles “leak” across the damaged barrier and your immune system (60% of which is right under that lining) starts to attack these partially digested food particles. That’s when you develop food intolerances or allergies.” *Are we mind-blown yet?* There’s more — “when your gut is leaky, partially digested foods get exposed to your immune system, which then creates an abnormal response to something pretty normal — food” (more on leaky gut here: Inflammation: How to Cool the Fire Inside You That’s Making You Fat and Diseased). In order to avoid leaky gut and starve the bad bugs, we should aim to reduce processed foods and artificial sweeteners from our diet. I’ve included tips on how to swap processed foods for healthy, tasty options here.
*I launched @wellwithyael and @thewellnesseries to continue the conversation around health among friends. My goal is to make these suggestions approachable, actionable and enjoyable. Message my sister and me at email@example.com or DM @thewellnesseries for inquiries, to attend our next event, or to order a healing goodie-bag with gut-approved travel-sized treats.*
If you’re looking to incorporate 30+ plants into your weekly regimen, ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me at @wellwithyael for more practical tips tailored to your preferences.
Note: I am gathering research and findings to make suggestions that I hope you find helpful here. I am not a doctor or practitioner and I encourage you to challenge and question my recommendations. We each have unique bodies and the goal is to tune into what works for us and what does not on an individual basis. I love to expand my knowledge in the space so feel free to send me your findings and health hacks as well.