Food for Thought

Moderation for Gut Microbiome Health – Part 2 of 3

There is a lot of buzz about the gut microbiome and its importance in human health. With the impact of the coronavirus, understanding the connection between gut microbes and immunity is more critical than ever. Last month we looked at what foods and chemicals to avoid to strengthen the gut flora. This month, we will look at what to consume only in moderation to support the 100 trillion microbes living in the human digestive system and thereby support the immune system’s fight against all types of potential illnesses.

The study of the microbiome is still in its infancy. Even though there is still a lot to learn, there is research upon which we can draw. In study after study, the evidence shows that anyone who eats can make a big difference in supporting their gut flora. It starts by using the following common-sense suggestions to nourish and flourish your gut micro-buddies right now. You will be grateful to find there are very few surprises.

The recommendations for strengthening your microbiome fall into three categories:

  • What to avoid
  • What to moderate
  • What to include

This month we look at what to consume in moderation. These are foods, chemicals, medications, thoughts, etc. that it may be impossible to avoid completely. Our recommendation is to decrease your exposure to them as much as possible and as often as you can.

No-Surprise Number 7

Antibiotics have been the frontline treatment for common bacterial infections since the 1940s. Antibiotics work by killing the bacteria causing the infection. Thank goodness! However, while we take medicines to kill a bacterial infection such as bronchitis or acne, they will also kill some of the desirable bacteria in our gut. The die-off of gut bacteria allows other co-existing microbes to grow more rapidly. Rapid overgrowth of existing microbes is called super-infection. Between the loss of beneficial gut bacteria and the super-infection of other opportunistic microbes, like yeasts, the gut flora can get thrown out of balance. Recovering from the imbalance can take months or years. Long story short: sometimes, antibiotics are the best or only remedy. However, the unnecessary use of antibiotics is a bad idea. When you have to use them, get them from a medical provider, take them as directed, and only when needed. And as a nurse, I beg you, please don’t demand antibiotics if your trusted medical provider says you don’t need them.

No-Surprise Number 8

NSAIDs. NonSteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen have long been associated with serious gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Adverse side effects include inflammation, bleeding, ulceration, and perforation of any organs of the GI tract organs, some of which can be fatal. Recent research shows that NSAIDs also alter the microbiome in individuals that take them. Furthermore, in one study, the bacterial composition of the gut varied with the type of NSAID ingested. In fact, the types of bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tracts of study participants were clearly correlated with the combinations of medications that the participants ingested.

The microbial shifts, or dysbiosis, were distinctly different from the gut microbe profiles of people that did not take NSAIDs during the study.

It is interesting to note that all medications cause similar distinct shifts in gut flora.

No Surprise Number 9

Alcohol. We have all heard about the benefits derived from the occasional glass of red wine. While the microbiome appears to be comfortable in the company of fermented red grapes, research shows that too much alcohol causes imbalances in the gut flora. The imbalance, or dysbiosis, indicates reduced microbe diversity, which researchers believe is less desirable for protecting and maintaining human health.

No-Surprise Number 10  

Stress affects everything, including the microbiome. If you have ever been scared, excited, nervous, or sad, you have probably felt the impact of stress on your digestive system. It could show up as an upset stomach or butterflies with a loss of appetite. Alternatively, we may experience major “emotional eating,” during which time we crave and consume particular types of foods. For some people, stress can even cause nausea, vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea.

New research suggests that stress-related appetite and behavior changes may occur because brain and belly are connected chemically and physically. The gut and brain maintain a constant chemical conversation through hormones, neurotransmitters, microbial metabolites, and the vagus nerve. Some of what they say can directly affect our moods and related behaviors. Look up the gut-brain axis for more information.

The communication between mind and belly is bi-directional. In other words, the gut signals physical, chemical, and emotional stress to the brain and vice versa. Knowing that the two have a direct connection is one good reason to cultivate strong stress management skills. Developing a meditation practice, keeping a playful point of view, along with a positive outlook, and engaging in exercise and enjoyable hobbies are all good ways to handle stress. Try them in any combination. Your immune system and microbiome will reward you for the effort. Just for fun, here is an excellent meditation on eating an apple from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh ‘s book Savor. Test it out and see how it works for you. 

In summary, consciously managing stressors, and minimizing the use of NSAIDs, and alcohol will help your gut microbiota flourish.

A special warning about Antibiotics:

Antibiotics are in a class by themselves. To minimize their impact on the micro-buddies, we recommend doing whatever you can to avoid infections, so that you don’t need to take antibiotics in the first place. That being said, there are times when antibiotics are absolutely the treatment of choice, so we must take them. When and if that is the case, please seek out a qualified health care provider, get a prescription for the specific antibiotic you need, and take it as directed. Reducing your exposure to prescribed antibiotics by decreasing the number of days or doses or by taking someone else’s medications is never recommended.

Next month we will examine what we should do to strengthen and support our micro-buddies so that they work most effectively in our favor.

Meanwhile, keep calm and support your microbiome.