What is My Microbiome?
Long overlooked, the bacteria in our digestive tracts are increasingly a subject of scientific and medical focus as the source of both many common maladies and their potential cures. Indeed, our digestive microflora – our microbiome of gut bacteria – are now known to have a complex role in our immune system health, metabolism, weight, and mood. Moreover, when the microbiome is unbalanced, a situation known as “dysbiosis,” ill health is a potential outcome. Dysbosis is thought by scientists to play a role in the development of certain diseases, and our overall physiology.
Our microbiome is comprised of bacteria and eukaryotic microbes that live predominantly in our colon. Collectively, scientists believe that the microbiome consists of trillions of bacteria – so may that if they were collected from the average human digestive tract they would weigh about 4.4 pounds total. It is only recently, however, that scientists have begun looking at the role that these trillions of bacteria play in our day-to-day health. Interestingly, what is true of humans is also true of other species. Researchers now know that each organism on earth, regardless of its complexity, has its own microbiome.
Foods That Can Cause Dysbiosis
As a core component of a living organism, it is perhaps not surprising that, like the human body overall, the microbiome is not static and constantly evolves over time in response to influences that range from dietary changes to exposure to anti-biotics. For example, restricting a diet to mostly red meat consumption results in the growth of bile-metabolizing bacteria in the intestines – bacteria that are linked to inflammatory bowel diseases like colitis and Crohnes Disease, as well as multiple sclerosis, diabetes (types 1 and 2), allergies, asthma, autism, and cancer. Diets consisting of a lot of processed foods, and sugar, as well as meat and dairy products raised with hormones and antibiotics can all lead to dysbiosis generally. In contrast, a diet restricted largely to vegetables results in a demonstrable increase in plant polysaccharide-fermenting bacteria, which promote a healthy and balanced microbiome.
Underscoring the individual variability of each individual’s microbiome, researches have learned that two individuals consuming the exact same diet can have very different metabolic responses due to differences in their respective microbiomes. Therefore, understanding one’s own microbiome can help an individual manage conditions ranging from allergies, to blood sugar levels, and immune responses to respiratory tract irritants and even viral or bacterial infections.
Foods that help your microbiome
Indeed, researchers have found that a healthy level of bacteria known as Lactobacillales in the microbiome contribute to overall health and can help diminish the symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea and lactose intolerance, for example. Similarly, fermented foods and beverages, for example sauerkraut, pickles, and Kombucha, are naturally acidic. This natural acidity gives the bacteria an advantage when passing successfully through the stomach where they can then thrive in the colon. As discussed more fully below, fermented foods also have probiotic effects, which promote a balanced microbiome. The consumption of foods that promote a balanced microbiome help minimize the inflammation and oxidative stress on the colon that damage our health and contribute to disease development and progression.
Interestingly, studies have also shown that geographical location affects one’s microbiome. Scientists have documented general microbiome differences between individuals in North and South America, Korea and Japan, and Europe and Africa. They have also documented microbiome differences between the rural and urban populations within both Russia and China. Probable explanations for these geographical and urban-rural microbiome differences include diet as well as early-life and parental exposures and genetics.
With that background, there are three core dietary principles that one can follow to promote a healthy and balanced microbiome and avoid the dysbiosis that can cause or contribute to diseases and poor health. These three principles are:
1) Consume vegetables daily, especially leafy greens like spinach and kale.
Also, it helps the microbiome to consume berries, many of which are high in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties, as well as fruits that are low in sugar, like apples.