There are more bacteria cells than human cells in your body right now, and they influence a broad range of physiological and neurological processes. I highly recommend reading the book 10% Human: How Your Body's Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness by Alanna Collen. She does an excellent job presenting the current state of microbiome research and the impacts of our microbiome on human health. Recent advances in the ability to quickly and economically sequence the DNA of bacteria has accelerated our understanding of the human microbiome. However, any scientist you ask will admit we are just scratching the surface on this very exciting new world. I have adopted some simple practices in my daily life in an attempt to help out my little germ friends. In part 1 of this series I'll focus on the estimated 3 to 5 pounds of bacteria that make up my gut microbiome.
A healthy gut microbiome is one diverse in bacterial species. To assist cultivating a wide variety you should follow a feed and seed approach for your gut. This simply means consuming prebiotic and probiotic foods or supplements.
Prebiotic foods and supplements can contain one or both types of dietary fiber. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and just passes through the digestive track. The benefit of insoluble fiber is the added bulk to help move things along. Soluble fiber is dissolved in water, but cannot be broken down by our stomach or small intestine. It passes through the gut to the large intestine where it consumed, actually fermented, by our gut bacteria and broken down into useful compounds. You should try to consume both types, but to feed your gut bacteria, you need the soluble type.
I try to eat vegetables with every meal, raw and cooked. Variety is the key. Peas are a staple in my diet due to their high fiber content. We always keep a few bags of frozen peas in the freezer. They will last a long time and are easy to prepare. I simply microwave them for a quick side dish at dinner time. No, the microwave is not killing your food. It's a great modern convenience and the research has shown it's safe. Some of my other go-to veggies are broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, and green beans.
2 )Fiber Supplement-
To ensure I get plenty of fiber, I take one tablespoon of psyllium husk twice per day. It's cheap and effective. Psyllium husk is a soluble dietary fiber commonly found as the main ingredient in the popular brand Metamucil, but they add sweeteners. I prefer to use a pure, single ingredient, psyllium husk supplement. The flavor reminds me of breakfast cereals like shredded wheat. Many pure options are available, I tried a few and found Now Foods Psyllium Husk Powder to be my favorite. It has a good consistency and best of all it's available on Amazon Prime. Drink it quickly after mixing with plenty water. If you let to sit for just a few minutes, it will thicken into a paste that is good for your gut, but hard to swallow.
3) Resistant Starch
Resistant starch is another type of soluble fiber found in many raw starchy vegetables and in rice that has been cooked and allowed to cool. I have recently started adding Bob's Red Mill Unmodified Potato Starch in with my fiber supplement to help feed my gut bacteria. If you want to try this, go slow. I started with a quarter teaspoon, twice per day, and slowly increased over a month to 1 tablespoon, twice per day.
Feeding your resident gut bacteria is important, but can how can we add more diversity? Probiotic foods and supplements contain living microorganisms. The hypothesis is that by consuming these bacteria, we can positively alter the composition of gut bacteria. More research is needed in this area to prove if they survive the trip through our stomach and which bacteria strains we should consume.
1) Probiotic Supplements -
I don't take any probiotic supplements. The probiotic capsules you find in many stores contain trillions of copies of only a few strains of bacteria. Given that the science on these supplements is not yet proven, I have decided not to spend my money on probiotic supplements. Hopefully one day the research will advance to where we have customized probiotic supplement to treat the needs of an individual, but that's down the road. Right now, I focus on eating probiotic foods.
2) Probiotic Foods -
My favorite probiotic food by far is sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage and to be probiotic, it has to be eaten raw. Canned, jarred, or cooked sauerkraut won't have the good bacteria. I make sauerkraut at home. It's so easy to make, and the flavor options are endless. Yogurt is, of course, the most commonly consumed probiotic food. Greek yogurt is a great source of protein too. Three more of my favorite probiotic foods are Kefir, Kombucha, and Miso. Kefir is a fermented milk product, like yogurt, but has more bacterial diversity than commercially produced yogurt. Kefir is available to purchase in most grocery stores, but I like to make Kefir at home. It is a very interesting process. Kombucha is fermented tea and sugar mixture (technically speaking it's cultured). You can purchase commercial Kombucha products, and like Kefir also make at home. Miso is a great probiotic condiment or soup base made by culturing beans or grains. I recommend The South River Miso Company if you're looking to try some. They make awesome stuff using traditional methods. Just make sure not to kill the good bacteria by cooking or overheating.
3) Avoiding Antibiotics-
I think the most effective way to maintain gut bacteria diversity is simply not intentionally killing them off. Antibiotic drugs are extremely effective at killing bacteria, good and bad. That's great news if you have a bacterial infection, but they are not effective on viruses. Over prescribing antibiotic drugs for treatments other than bacterial infections, such as the common cold or flu, not only needlessly kills gut bacteria, but also contributes to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Bacteria evolve very quickly, and they will adapt to the drugs we use to kill them. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria could quickly become a major threat to human existence. Hopefully in the future, we will develop targeted antibiotic treatments that kill only specific bad bacteria and leave the good ones. For now we are relying on broad spectrum drugs. The largest consumer of antibiotic drugs is the animal farming industry. I haven't read any solid research yet about how much of these drugs pass though the food chain into humans. If you know of any good information in this area, please comment below. For now, I try to avoid antibiotics in my food when shopping at the grocery store, but I still eat many meals at restaurants where the meat supplier is unknown.
Thanks for reading Part 1, please follow my social accounts to stay tuned for Part 2 where I discuss the bacteria living on my skin. That's going to be a fun one! Here's a quick teaser - AOBiome.