Keeping Fit: Build a better microbiome

Jeremy Walraven

Ever wonder why you can’t seem to lose weight, suffer from irritable bowels, seem to constantly have a cold and/or live with chronic inflammation? The answer could dwell in your gut health.

At any given moment there are literally trillions of microorganisms known as microbiota or microbes working in your body to keep you healthy. Most of these are located in your digestive tract, with the greatest concentration in the intestines and colon. Today, let’s explore a few tips to keep your gut health at its best.

Gut bugs?!?!

Everyone has a unique assortment of microbes (aka “gut bugs”) that are influenced by age, DNA, environmental exposure, stress, physical activity level, antibiotics and diet. These microbes serve to synthesize certain vitamins and amino acids, stimulate the immune system, break down toxic food compounds, affect how different foods are digested (such as fiber, certain antioxidants and dietary fats) and produce chemicals that affect your appetite.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, this ecosystem of microbes makes up what is commonly referred to as the microbiome. Normally, the microbiome is made up of microbes that are both helpful, along with those that are potentially harmful. An imbalance, referred to as dysbiosis, occurs when there are too many harmful bacteria compared with too little helpful bacteria in the microbiome. Dysbiosis has been linked to insulin resistance, weight gain, obesity, inflammation, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.

What can we do to avoid dysbiosis and keep this system in balance? To no great surprise, a great deal of our gut health centers around the foods and drinks we consume.

The more, the merrier

Remember Mom telling you to eat your fruits and veggies? Well, there’s a good reason for that advice. Eating a diverse range of whole plant foods, while limiting saturated fat, sugar, artificial sweeteners and highly caloric foods is key to a healthy microbiome.

Studies have shown that lower gut bacteria diversity is often associated with obesity and other chronic ailments. According to Johns Hopkins gastroenterologist Gerald Mullin, “As we age, the natural cycles (of the digestive system) slow down and don’t work as well,” due in large part to shifts in stomach acid and gastrointestinal flora.

Mullin states that when the gut is healthy we’re less likely to experience episodes of weakened immunity and elevated inflammation. He points out a diet rich in fiber (30 to 35-plus grams a day) is just what a healthy gut flora needs, but that many Americans’ fiber consumption is 40% to 50% of the needed levels.

Perry-Kris Etherton, professor of nutrition at Penn State University, states we need both prebiotics (special plant fibers that nourish the microbiota) and probiotics (live microorganisms in food) in our diets to have a balanced microbiome.

Whole plant foods rich in prebiotics include apples and bananas, potatoes, onions, greens, oats and whole grains, as well as lentils, beans and seeds (like flax and chia). When the fibers from these foods are fermented by our gut bacteria they produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA). And these SCFAs are essential because they feed beneficial microbiota, stimulate immune cell activity and help combat inflammation and cancer activity.

Probiotics already contain beneficial living microbiota that can further strengthen your existing microbiome. These foods include fermented items such as kimchi, kombucha tea, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables, miso and non-sweetened plain yogurt with active cultures.

Pass the red wine, please

Excessive alcohol consumption has also been linked to dysbiosis by disrupting gut microbes. Alcohol may also contribute to inadequate sleep, higher stress levels and the intake of more processed foods, which have all been linked to a declining health of the microbiome.

Research suggests if you do choose to drink, red wine is probably best. This is because red wine contains a plant compound known as polyphenols. These compounds are broken down by gut bacteria in the colon and may help reduce blood pressure and improve cholesterol. If you’re not a fan of red wine, no worries, it is not the only way to ingest these compounds, as dark chocolate, blueberries and green tea also contain polyphenols.

Although it may seem New Age, scientists have been studying the microbiome for at least a century. Through this research, it is advised that we eat a wide variety of both prebiotic and probiotic foods as well as those containing polyphenols.

If small changes in your daily nutrition can make such drastic improvements in your health, why not give it a shot? After all, we are what we eat!

Jeremy Walraven is a fitness consultant at the Bradley Wellness Center.

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