Remember when you were told to wash all your fruits and veggies with soap before eating them? That all germs were bad for you? Antibiotics are used for everything from treating a common cold or a small pimple to treating a deadly blood infection. Antibacterials have become so trendy that I recently had a friend tell me that her daughter trades the sparkly, colored little bottles of hand sanitizer at school with her friends like we did scratch 'n sniff stickers. So, what DO all these germs do to our guts and our overall health?
Well, the truth is, not ALL germs are bad for us. The recent discovery of the microbiome sheds light on the multitude of beneficial bacteria and other organisms that live within our vast inner world. They lurk in our intestines and other areas of the body where they communicate with our immune system, our brains and even our genes. They provide a protective barrier between the gut and the rest of our body so that the food we eat as well as the toxins we consume remain in our intestines, where we process and eliminate what we need or don’t require. Many of these microbes help us make vitamins, process food into energy, and participate in a whole host of other important functions that keep our bodies running smoothly.
Diversity is key. The greater the diversity of these beneficial organisms, the better. One way to get diversity, is to get dirty! Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein explains in her book, The Dirt Cure, how exposure to beneficial bugs on the farm or in a garden helps keep kids from developing asthma, eczema and allergies. Just think of all the time we spend telling our kids not to play in the dirt, when all the while, it might be the dirt that keeps them healthy.
Another way to improve the diversity of our miniature little friends, is to understand how your dietary choices can affect them. A recent study published in the journal Science, examined an analysis of two large studies that looked at what increases the diversity of our gut microbiome, and what detrimentally decreases variance. Here is a breakdown of some of those results:
Top things that decreased gut microbiome diversity:
1. Medications - the most harmful ones being antibiotics and proton-pump inhibitors (used to treat heartburn).
2. A high-calorie diet high in simple carbohydrates (such as candy, white breads, white pasta, baked sweets etc).
3. Frequent eating - turns out that eating small meals every two hours (grazing) is not ideal for our gut microbiome.
4. Sweetened drinks - such as soda and juices with added sugar and high fructose corn syrup
Top things that improve gut microbiome diversity:
1. High fiber diets of whole vegetables and fruits
2. Dark chocolate - thankfully!
3. Fermented foods - examples: yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, kim chi
4. Red wine
5. Green Tea
In addition to those top things found in the research studies, here are a couple of things you can also do to improve the variety of good bugs in your gut.
1. Take a good quality probiotic - it should be a reputable brand, such as Integrative Therapeutics or Pure Encapsulations. It should also have a good variety of both lactobacillus as well as bifidobacterium. Until we have more specific data on which exact strains are helpful, this is a good rule of thumb.
2. Provide prebiotic food for the bacteria - prebiotics are the nondigestible food that the bacteria need to thrive. These include fiber, oligofructose and inulin found in the skin of apples, bananas, onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root and beans. You can also get a prebiotic supplement or try potato starch in a smoothie.
Overall, we need to allow these little friendly organisms to flourish within us. We certainly can’t live without ‘em! So, eat a wholesome diet full of a variety of fruits, vegetables and beans. Take antibiotics only when necessary. Enjoy a cup of green tea or a glass of red wine with your dark chocolate. And maybe, just maybe, don’t wash the dirt off the carrot you pick from your organic garden before you chop it up into your salad. Above all, take comfort in knowing that you are supported by an entire community of organisms (though mostly unseen), all rooting for your health and well-being.