Food for Thought
This month we close this 3 part series on the care and feeding of the gut microbiota. Last month we looked at what to consume in moderation to strengthen your microbiome. This month we look at what to include to keep all of your gut micro-buddies well fed and well cared for. Studies have shown that microbial diversity is key to how well they function together. Therefore, the suggestions below are intended to increase microbe numbers and diversity. Along with the list below, remember to eat smaller portions and chew your food thoroughly. The microbes that comprise the microbiome are small and mighty, but they don’t have teeth.
Over the past 200 years, people have gradually moved away from open rural spaces toward densely packed urban areas. As a consequence of that migration from farm to city, we don’t go outside to work or play nearly as much as we did even 30 years ago. Think about this: the majority of people living in the western hemisphere work or go to school indoors during the day. When not in school, young people are more likely to spend their free time watching screens (TVs, computers, tablets, and phones) than playing in a park. The same is true of adults, especially in the colder regions.
Less time outdoors means we are not exposed to nature like we used to be. Because of this, we come across fewer microbes, which limits the gut microbiome population’s diversity. The good news is that you can improve the health of your microbiota by spending active time outside. Start a garden, go to the park or a beach, have a picnic outside, walk on a trail, skip stones on a lake. The bottom line: getting out in nature will increase your microbiome population diversity. It might also help your attitude, and that’s a good thing.
2. Try intermittent fasting
“Intermittent fasting” involves following a schedule of planned pauses between meals. The pauses last 12-24 hours at a time. People often take a 12-hour break overnight, starting after dinner and ending with breakfast the following day. The gut microbiome benefits from intermittent fasting because some bacteria do best in a calorie-rich environment, while others need a calorie-scarce environment to flourish.
So, see if you can put a little more time, like 12-16 hours, between dinner and breakfast – your microbiome will thank you.
3. Get plenty of sleep on a consistent schedule
We have all heard how important it is to get 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep each night. On top of that, missed sleep, as well as changes in sleep schedule, can negatively affect the microbiome. Who knew that our micro-buddies are closely connected to our sleep rhythms? So be sure to get enough good quality shut-eye as regularly as possible to avoid the unwanted impact to your microbiota. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32051239/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25891358/
Research shows that physical exercise is essential for human fitness. It may be great for your gut microbiome, too. Exercise has been shown to support microbe diversity and increase beneficial bacteria metabolites in some people. Light to moderate activity for 30 minutes daily is all that some people’s gut microbiomes need to respond.
5. Make room for a pet
Studies have shown that there are differences between the microbes found in the guts of people who have pets compared to people who do not. This has led some researchers to think that the microbes on our pets increase our overall microbial diversity. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7058978/
Even infants exposed to the family cat or dog before birth showed increased variety in their gut microbial profiles after birth when they were compared to other infants that were not exposed to pets at all. https://microbiomejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40168-017-0254-x
6. Opt for a vaginal birth, if possible
Here’s a fun fact: A mom gives her baby its first set of gut microbes before birth. The mom gives the next set of microbes during the birth process. When the baby is born vaginally, she starts life with gut microbiota similar to that found in the mother. If the baby is born by C-section, her gut flora is more heavily laced with typical hospital and common skin microbes. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1560-1 Researchers believe that the difference in microbe populations in the microbiome of C-section babies places the infant at higher risk for some illnesses later in life. We all know that C-sections can save lives, so there is no shaming here. However, it is vital to know that when there is a legitimate option between vaginal and C-section birth, vaginal delivery is more desirable because, among other things, it strengthens the infant’s microbiome.
7. Breastfeed for at Least Six Months to One Year
There are many reasons human breast milk is the perfect food for human infants. Moreover, recent discoveries in microbiome research show that breastmilk adds significantly to the newborn’s gut flora. Breast milk contains human milk oligosaccharides, which scientists initially thought were useless because the baby can’t digest them. We now know these sugars feed the infant’s gut flora. Bifidobacteria are deposited into the infant’s gut flora via breast milk. Bifidobacteria also digest the sugars in breast milk. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25974306/. These kinds of bacteria are not found in the same numbers in formula-fed babies. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25974306/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20479681/
Breastfeeding is also associated with a decreased incidence of childhood allergies, obesity, and diabetes. These diseases appear to correlate with differences in the gut microbiota of the children studied https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20111658/.
8. Eat more organic fruits and vegetables
Organically grown vegetables can be expensive, but the benefits of keeping pesticides and herbicides out of your gut are priceless. When you eat locally grown, organic produce, it helps your microbiota, all the while supporting local farmers and the environment, too! If you can get to a local farmer’s market and purchase directly from the farmer, the benefits are multiplied. Furthermore, eating organic has the added benefit of providing beneficial microbes from the dirt they grow in. To be sure, wash all produce, but note that your scrub factor may decrease a bit on the organically grown. Check out this link for a list from Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen” for what’s what about produce and pesticides.
9. Eat a Wide Range of Plant Nutritious Foods
There are hundreds of different strains of bacteria in our intestines. Each type of microbe plays a part in our health. So, the richer the diversity, the higher the potential benefits. To support diversity in the gut, it is essential to eat a wide variety of plant types that nourish the microbiota. Our microbiota love legumes, vegetables, fruits, leaves, seeds, roots, and whole grains. Feed them well to keep them varied, healthy, and plentiful.
10. Eat Fermented Foods and Probiotics
Examples of fermented foods include:
- Plant-based yogurts like those made from almond, soy and coconut milk
Consuming these foods, along with taking probiotic supplements, can add beneficial microbes to your gut.
Fermented soybean milk may promote the growth of gut-loving bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22040525/ It may also decrease other disease-causing bacteria. Kimchi may also benefit the gut flora according to studies. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25688926/
11. Eat Prebiotic Foods
Prebiotic foods contain fiber or complex carbohydrates that humans can’t digest. These kinds of fiber and carbs are called prebiotic because they fuel the growth of valuable microbes in our digestive systems. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5614387/ Many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contain prebiotics. To get more prebiotics in your diet, choose from chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic, onions, asparagus, leeks, bananas, barley, oats, and jicama, to name a few.
12. Eat a Plant-Based Diet
Whole food plant-based diets tend to promote greater microbial diversity than diets heavy in animal products.
This may be due to the higher amounts of fiber in plant-rich diets. Diets heavy in animal products tend to decrease microbiome diversity, possibly because of the higher acidity it causes in the gut.
The Most Important Thing
The microbes in the human gut have co-evolved with our species since our species began. For each of us, the relationship starts before birth and continues past death. The gut microbes perform many essential functions for us and support or assist in many more.
For the most part, the microbes are friendly unless they get out of balance. Studies show that when the microbiota is off-kilter, it can lead to chronic diseases like allergies, obesity, depression, heart disease, and Type II Diabetes, to name a few.
Ongoing microbiome research yields new discoveries all the time. Knowing what we know now, it is obviously wise to care for our gut microbiota so they can continue to live, develop, and work in our favor.
Furthermore, studies show that the best way to feed and care for our gut microbiome is to eat a variety of fresh, whole plant foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, beans, seeds, nuts, and whole grains. Eat from all parts and all colors, as appropriate, to supply fiber and a range of carbohydrates, amino acids, fats, vitamins, and minerals. At the same time, avoid the stuff that harms our micro-buddies like processed foods, tobacco, and sugar. Also, manage the toxic load caused by stress, NSAIDs, and antibiotics. The bottom line: We can do a lot to feed and care for the gut microbiota. Treat them like you would treat a beloved pet. You will be grateful that you did.
Contributing Writer: Meryl Fury
Meryl Fury is President and CEO of PBNM.org. An experienced RN and trainer with strong organizational and team building skills, Meryl has her Masters degree in Nursing and hold certificates from Villanova in Project Management, the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies in Plant-Based Nutrition, and from Rouxbe Online Culinary School, Fork Over Knives Plant-Based Cuisine. For more about Meryl, click here.