Dear Coach: I have some stomach issues and I’m hearing a lot about our “gut microbiome” these days. What does it all means, and does food factor into it? What is your opinion of probiotics? Thank you, C.R.
Dear C.R., You’re right that there’s a lot of buzz lately about the health of our guts. The gut microbiome is the subject of much new research, and we now know which foods are beneficial to our gut, and which foods can lead to problems. The saying “you are what you eat” is certainly true or our gut microbiome –the composition of trillions of bacterial organisms that reside in our gastrointestinal tracts. Most people think of bacteria as dirty or dangerous; in truth, the vast majority of organisms living in our bodies are helpful, or at least nor harmful. These bacteria can act as a barrier system that prevents undigested food and toxins from entering the bloodstream, facilitate absorption of nutrients from food, help to regulate the immune system, prevent the growth of unfriendly organisms like yeasts and parasites, and play a role either directly or indirectly in most human functions. Other benefits of a healthy gut microbiome include the prevention and healing of diarrhea, Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s and other GI disorders; other benefits include improved digestion, constipation relief, lessening symptoms of inflammatory arthritis, suppressed cancer development and growth, and reduction in cholesterol and triglycerides.
As you can see, maintaining a healthy gut flora is crucial to our health. Problems occur when our microflora gets out of balance, in other words, the good bacteria get crowded out and the pathogens (bad bacteria) take over. The health of the gut flora can become impaired by temperature, illness, antibiotics and other drug treatments, and our diets play a huge role. Each bacteria survives on specific kinds of nutrients. In short, friendly bacteria prefer to dine on plant-food remnants (fiber), while pathogens thrive when the diet is low in plant foods and high in meat, dairy, and other junk foods (no fiber). Therefore, what we choose to eat determines the predominance of the bacteria species that will live in our gut. The more plants foods you eat, the healthier your GI tract will be. By changing a diet based on animal products and processed foods to a more whole food, plant centered diet, you can suppress the growth of harmful bacteria and stimulate those that are beneficial. Major alterations in the microflora take place within one to two weeks of changing a person’s diet.
Probiotics and Prebiotics: Our microflora can also be rebalanced with the use of probiotic supplements. Purposefully adding particular species of bacteria with the use of probiotics can rebalance the intestines and improve a person’s health. Prebiotics are non-digestible simple sugars sold as pills or liquids that stimulate the growth of friendly bacteria, and are very effective for relieving constipation. Probiotics are the bacteria, and prebiotics are the bacteria’s food. When the two are combined, it’s called “synbiotic”. You can find synbiotic products sold as mixtures of both probiotics and prebiotics. There are no undesirable side effects; however, probiotics are most effective when combined with a plant-based diet.
Tips to alter your Gut Bacteria:
- Get at least 50 grams of fiber daily from food. That’s easy to do when building meals around whole grains, starches (rice, potatoes, yams, squash), vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and greens.
- Limit fat intake and lose weight. Fat cells produce inflammatory cytokines which lead to inflammation and alter gut bacteria.
- Avoid antibiotics unless necessary. Overexposure to antibiotics destroys good gut bacteria along with the bad.
- The use of probiotics, prebiotics or synbiotics may be helpful, especially when combined with #1.
- Protect the kids. Studies show the differences in bacterial composition as soon as breast feeding is stopped. Children eating a diet high in starch and fiber have significantly higher levels of beneficial bacteria and lower levels of pathogenic bacteria than children consuming animal protein and fat. Early habits including junk foods, high-fat and fried foods, sugary beverages and large amounts of meat and dairy can result in poor gut ecology, which leads to poor health.