The microbiome is a community of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies, and gut health is rapidly showing a long-term influence on our microbiome.
For every cell in the human body, there are about 10 nonhuman cells that reside in the gut, skin, eyes and nasal passages. Collectively, these more than 100 trillion microorganisms are referred to as your personal “microbiome.”
Within that, the microbiota (aka microflora) are microorganisms affected by how you live – everything from how you entered the world (your birth) to your daily environment. Bacteria, yeasts, molds, dirt and types of food you consume all affect your personal microbiota and microbiome. Antibiotics have a significant negative impact on your microbiome.
Your gut digests protein, carbohydrates and fats from the food and drinks you consume. We are just starting to appreciate the influence of gut bacteria on other metabolic functions. The microbiome’s role is critical. An “unhealthy” microbiome can contribute to irritable bowel diseases, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, depression, autoimmune disorders, allergic disorders, leaky gut, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and cancer.
The key question is: How does the microbiome become altered to negatively affect the host, and how can the host build better microbiota?
A healthy microbiome teaches your immune system to fight for your overall health. A diet high in fruit, vegetables and perhaps whole grains allows beneficial bacteria to dominate and inhibits the growth of more harmful strains. While researchers haven’t reached consensus about what constitutes an optimal microbiome, here is general advice for tending our microbial gardens:
Fruits and vegetables: A diet rich in vegetables, fruit and legumes (therefore high in dietary fiber) apparently benefits by providing intestinal bacteria in the form of prebiotics.
Fermented foods: The bacterial strains found in fermented foods are temporary but influence bacteria already there. Naturally fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir with “live cultures,” fermented vegetables, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh and vinegar are high in beneficial Lactobacillus bacteria. To get the benefits, the foods must be naturally fermented. Pasteurization decreases beneficial bacteria, so refrigeration is essential.
Beer: When bottled or canned, beer loses its natural prebiotics. On tap, they are still present.
Garlic: Garlic has natural antimicrobial properties that can suppress pathogenic bacteria and foster beneficial bacteria growth.
Focus on fresh food: Highly processed foods as well as sugar and transfats have been associated with inflammatory microbiota.
New research is looking at what foods can positively affect the gut and at the brain-gut interaction (stress), appetite control and cardiovascular implications. We realize that probiotics in foods, in adequate amounts, offer a variety of health benefits to the host.
If you use supplements, be aware that probiotics are hard to control during the processing. They do not require federal approval and frequently contain fewer microorganisms than listed on the label or different strains of bacteria than listed.
Bacteria that your immune system recognizes as “normal” (prevail in your gut for duration of your life) are established by the first exposure to your mothers’ microbial mix. Babies born vaginally are colonized by microbes present in the birth canal, particularly strains of Lactobacillus species. By contrast, babies born via cesarean section are colonized by the microbiota of a mother’s skin and bacteria present at birth, predominantly Staphylococcus species.
First foods matter, as well. Breast milk contains oligosaccharides that act as prebiotics – food for the infant’s developing intestinal community. Formula has not been able to replicate these benefits. After birth, infants cultivate their own bacterial mix until the developing microbiota reach a relatively stable state, typically by two years of age.
email@example.com or 382-6461. Wendy Rice is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office.