Building Your Microbiome with Food
In the wake of our excessive use of antibiotics, hand sanitizers, and antibacterial soaps, we have come to realize that cleanliness is not tantamount to the total absence of germs. The human microbiota consists of all of the microorganisms that live in and on our bodies, for better or for worse. Even though species can vary- from country to country, and even from generation to generation- generally, there are 10 times as many bacterial cells as there are human cells in and on the human body. Given the fact that these microscopic residents outnumber our own cells, it comes as no surprise then, that in recent years, there have been many discoveries indicating that the human microbiota impacts our lives in ways that we are really only just beginning to understand. Focusing on the gut microbiota, we will take a look at how the profile of microorganisms found in the gastrointestinal tract influences health and disease, and how we can feel empowered to make a positive impact on our health and well being through the choices that we make every single day.
Within the GI tract, the two most commonly found beneficial bacteria include strains of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. Their benefits have been widely studied, and you will often see them included as featured ingredients in fermented food products and probiotic supplements. Benefits provided by some of their strains include: having an antidepressant-like effect by suppressing pro-inflammatory cytokines involved in the development of depression, and producing substances that are toxic to the bacterial strains that can cause disease- MRSA and E.coli, for example. Imbalances in the microbiota of the gut have been linked to obesity, diabetes, colon cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and IBS. The bidirectional communication between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain has been shown to be important for maintaining an appropriate stress response as well as for regulating hormones and the responsiveness of the immune system. The strength of this connection can be seen in the successful use of probiotic supplements to decrease anxiety and improve mood and GI symptoms in IBS patients.
What can often end up being excluded from the discussion is the fact that our dietary and lifestyle choices are the most influential factors in determining the balance (or imbalance) of bacterial strains in our GI tract. Just like their human hosts, microbes need a food source and a hospitable environment to survive. The foods that our beneficial bacteria thrive on are known as prebiotics, and they are defined as ‘non-digestible food ingredients that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines’. So, in our effort to maintain a balanced microbiota, it is important that in addition to the consumption of probiotic-rich foods, we also include the kinds of foods that will allow our beneficial bacteria to thrive. Although supplementation has proven to be beneficial, there is much debate regarding to what degree probiotic supplements can survive the journey from our mouths to our intestines, considering the many digestive processes and pH changes encountered along the way. Prebiotics, however, are not digested by our bodies, and arrive to the intestines intact- providing a nourishing food source to our beneficial bacteria, and creating an environment in which they may proliferate.Now, on to the tasty part- some of the delicious and nutritious foods that we can include in our diets to build our microbiota! Upon close examination of the probiotic and prebiotic foods listed below, you will see that many cultures have traditional foods that nourish our bodies and our microbial guests. If there is a fermented food item that you enjoy frequently, you may want to consider trying your hand at making it at home!
Building Your Microbiota with Food
Options include, but are not limited to: milk kefir (dairy or non-dairy), water kefir, yogurt (dairy or non-dairy), miso, natto, dark chocolate, kvass, and fermented vegetables- including pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Include prebiotic foods in your daily intake to make ensure that your beneficial bacteria are well-fed.
Options include, but are not limited to: onion, garlic, leeks, chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, bananas, legumes (beans and pulses), jicama, dandelion greens, and asparagus.
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