If you know anything about gardening, you know that if your soil is suffering, your garden will too. Human health is no different. Just as the health of the plant is dictated by the quality of the soil, human health is dictated by the quality of what’s happening in the gut.
In nature, it’s rather easy to look out and notice the ecosystems surrounding us that that we’re very much a part of. From the foxes that feed on rabbits who feed on green plants, which are pollinated by bees and birds; to the decomposers like fungi and bacteria that breakdown and regenerate plant matter into nutrient rich soil. An imbalance in any one of these processes and the whole system fails. Perhaps you’ve read what’s occurring right now with our native and honeybee populations.
In the human body, it’s a little more challenging to see this ecosystem, as the scale is much smaller, but really no different. Just as the microorganisms in earth’s soil make up the majority of the forest ecosystem, as humans, we’re teeming with microbes that dictate the fate of our health as well.
The human gut (gastro intestinal tract), if flattened out, is a surface as big as 2 tennis courts. 95% of our bodies’ bacteria is located in the GI tract, weighing up to 5 lbs. Naturally present gut bacteria are 10 to 50 times smaller than human cells and outnumber human cells 10:1…. If you’ve ever questioned whether or not you were really human, well, you’re mostly NOT! To put it into perspective, if we laid our body’s bacteria end to end, it would circle the Earth two and a half times!
The 10s of trillions of microorganisms in the human gut are made up of at least 1000 different species. With this many species, that’s 3 million gene sets that are expressed in addition to our one. Of these thousand, 1/3 is found in everyone, while 2/3 are unique to each of us. Just as we all have a fingerprint like no one else’s, no two guts are the same either.
So why is all this worth knowing? Because research has shown that the health of our gut is perhaps the biggest indicator of how healthy we are and will continue to be. The microbes in our intestines digest the foods we consume, produce vitamins that we cannot make, and keep out bacteria that we’d rather not have invade (E. coli anyone?). Our gut bacteria maintain the wholeness and integrity of the lining of our intestines and are our immune systems biggest ally.
I know what you’re thinking… Where do I sign up as a host for these good guys? No worries, if you’re healthy, chances are they’re already there. Hopefully you were birthed vaginally or had a vaginal birth if possible. This is where baby get his first exposure to the good guy bacteria. If not, no worries, your second chance and perhaps the most critical is from mommas breast. Not only do you pick up the good bacteria that have made themselves at home on her skin, her milk is teeming with good microbes and other factors that will help make your gut, therein your whole body, healthy as can be.
So maybe you were on a bottle or you had no choice but to feed your baby formula. There’s still hope. Once baby transitions onto solid foods, diet and environment are the two biggest factors that determine the strength of the gut. This is where, believe it or not, being ‘too clean’ is maybe not such a great idea. I’ll let you read about the ‘clean hygiene hypothesis’ and draw you own conclusions about dialing down the chemical disinfectant sprays, wipes and hand sanitizers.
As we age, so too do our microbes. Older folks will have a vastly different set of bacteria from youngsters. Throughout life, there are lots of things that throw our gut bacteria into a state called ‘dysbiosis’, which means the balance of the good to bad is a bit or way off. Imbalances are linked to disorders such as, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowl disease, autoimmune disorders, food and environmental allergies & intolerances, obesity and even type II diabetes.
Causes for dysbiosis are many, but the biggies are, poor diet (i.e. too much refined sugar and syrup, too many refined flours and grains, too much refined oils, not enough whole food fiber, and too much processed meat). Infections, over using antibiotics, stress, commercially raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy; bottle feeding babies vs. breast feeding, C-sections vs. vaginal births, overuse of antibiotic cleaners and sanitizers, chemical additives in foods, creams, lotions, sprays, wipes, etc., poor sleep, and too little activity are all linked to gut dysbiosis.
So, how do we straighten out these imbalances as a means to improve our overall health? And why the heck is a dietitian spending so much time talking about bacteria…? Food!
That’s right. Foods have the most influential power on our gut microbiota, more than any other factor. The two big categories of foods to focus on first are Pre and Pro-biotics.
While probiotics have grown in popularity and are seemingly a dime a dozen over the counter, it’s the other half of the story that determines how much the probiotics are able to help us to heal these gut imbalances.
PREbiotics are fermentable fibers that are indigestible to the human alone. These are foods such as garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes, bananas, plums, apples, bran, nuts and seeds. These foods have fibers that while they aren’t able to feed us directly, they service the good bacteria in our gut by feeding them so that they can better feed us. Beware, if you’re gut bacteria are in a state of dysbiosis, its likely these foods will send your GI into fits! Tread lightly on these foods until you get your gut in order. It’s always a good idea to cook and chew for a while before swallowing foods with a lot of fermentable fibers in the beginning.
PRObiotics are the live microorganisms themselves that confer health benefits to the host. They have a range of whole body benefits like maintaining the digestive tract, regulating the immune system and balancing the gut microbiota. My favorite part, they’re found naturally in foods. From everyday staples like plain Greek yogurt and sauerkraut to traditional cultured foods eaten around the world for hundreds of years like kombucha tea, kefir, and kimchi.
Below is a more detailed list of the foods that are worth incorporating for a belly bloat blasting boot!
Greens (especially dandelion greens)
Lassi, a drink made from yogurt and water
Aged cheese, blue, gouda and cheddar
Traditional Sourdough breads
Beyond a regular supply of these whole foods, a few other tactics can help to strengthen the gut and improve digestion overall:
Chew Your Food
Sleep 8 Hours
Drink Plenty of Water
Manage Your Stress and Make Time for Gratitude
Eat a Rainbow of Colorful Foods
Eat Whole Food Fiber: Soluble and Insoluble
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners… And Dyes, And Flavoring, And Anything That Has a Chemical Name
Move Your Body as Much as Possible
Gardeners put forth a lot of work to make sure the soil quality is just right for growing. That means that the microbiota (good bacteria) are in good balance for fixing the nutrients the plant needs to survive. A gut in dysbiosis is like soil without the right amount of microbes. It might get you through a growing season or two, but sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in field full of high weeds!