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If you’re remotely connected to the world of wellness today, you’ve probably heard of the microbiome—the mini-ecosystem of microorganisms that make up the human body.
In fact, over the last decade, the microbiome has become one of the trendiest areas of biology, and the research has made clear that the microbiome is fundamental to overall health. While the newfound cultural awareness is great, the focus is often misguided. Here’s the thing: the supplement industry has hijacked the conversation with it’s “pill for an ill” ethos.
Now people think popping a probiotic is all we need for gut health.
I’ve been guilty of this too.
This past summer work was crazy busy and left me feeling stressed. I kept thinking about what probiotics I should take to make everything more manageable.
But, in reality, the microbiome is a nuanced ecosystem composed of millions of organisms—it affects not just our gut health, but also our noses, throats, urinary tracts, genitals, and skin, and entire digestive system. Having a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria in our bodies helps us modulate immunity, insulate us from toxins, better absorb foods, and fight disease.
Instead of relying solely on a pill to strengthen your microbiome, we should seek to live a healthier lifestyle that fosters good gut bacteria.
Here’s why probiotic supplements aren’t a fix-all:
Your body recognizes nature.
Modern society frequently pits man against nature, forgetting that we, too, are nature.
On average, Americans spendindoors. That’s a problem because spending time outside is proven to foster relaxation, weight management, healthy blood pressure levels, and happiness. When you have no relationship with the earth, you feel disconnected from and afraid of the very environment from which you sprang.
Partnering with nature is also crucial to feeding the microbiome.
The natural world around us is filled with friendly bacteria that help us thrive. Bacteria are passed from mother to child at birth and continue to exchange colonies and information throughout our lives until they return to the soil at death. Absorbing friendly bacteria through contact with nature helps feed the good microorganisms in our guts.
Make a habit of taking a walk outside after lunch, going hiking on the weekends, or doing basically any other outdoor activity. Not only will you expose yourself to myriad beneficial microbes, but you’ll also find you’re less stressed. Lower stress levels lead to a healthier microbiome, which in turn leads to even lower stress, which then boots the microbiome. It’s a positive feedback loop.
Good gut health keeps you from getting sick.
Essentially every animal on Earth is a swarming mass of bacteria.
A recent research experiment raised mice in sealed chambers that separated them from the outside world and ensured the mice grew up without microbial contact. Because they grew up without microbes, their guts failed to develop properly. They had less surface area for absorbing nutrients, leaky walls, and slow renewal rates. Compared with microbial mice, the isolated mice had weaker bones, compromised immune systems, and were depressed. The issues plagued by mice in germ-free environments show just how important the microbiome is.
Too often, we see microbes as unwanted harbingers of disease we must avoid at all costs.
This stereotype began with the Black Death, which wreaked havoc through Europe in the late Middle Ages. As people started to move into cities, poor sanitation, rodents, and bad bugs came in and spread disease like wildfire, killing one-third of the human population. People soon figured out that plumbing and clean water can help ward off disease, but in the intervening centuries, public health and sanitation have gone overboard—killing the good bacteria with the bad.
In reality, most microbes don’t make us sick. At worst, they’re passengers for disease. At best, they’re invaluable parts of our bodies—helping us digest food, educate our immune systems, protect us from disease, and maintain health.
You are what you eat.
The single most important factor for a healthy microbiome is diet, and a big part of a healthy diet is fiber. Not only is it filling, but it also feeds our good bacteria, and produces many of our B vitamins. It provides a vital detox pathway or route that toxins take to exit your body, what it needs—plenty of fiber to scoop out the heavy metals.
Unfortunately, today we’re consuming a measly 10% of the fiber our ancestors did. The major decrease in the amount of fiber we’ve eaten over the last 100 years has changed us in such a dramatic way that now we’re getting sick much more frequently.
The simple answer to a healthier microbiome is to eat more vegetables…a LOT more.
Vegetables are calorically low and nutritionally high. Eating more of them will make you lose weight, feel better, and feed your microbiome. The list goes on. Ideally, they should be organically sourced and regenerative.
But it’s more nuanced than just eating vegetables. I recently did a gut microbiome test. As it turned out, I don’t have the bacteria needed to effectively break down spinach. I had been eating a spinach salad every day for lunch and wondering why I didn’t feel well. It was all because I didn’t have the right bacteria to break it down.
All vegetables are good, but not all vegetables are good for you. There are lots of labs and diagnostics to help you figure out what diet is best for you, so there’s simply no excuse for not taking our diets seriously.
When you rush through meals, your gut health suffers.
Most of us are eating way too fast, which causes us to take in too many calories before we’ve realized we’re full.
But scarfing down our meals is also really bad for our gut health.
If you don’t slow down for your meals, you’re creating an environment where the bad bacteria can thrive. You’re also preventing peristalsis, or the involuntary constriction and relaxation of intestinal muscles, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the bowels forward.
So even if you’re taking all the probiotics in the world, if you’re chowing down your lunch, you’re not getting any benefits from the supplements.
Look, I get it. I know everyone’s got more on their plate—both literally and figuratively—than they can realistically handle in a day. But if you eat regular meals, you’ll find it’s easier to slow down. This means never letting more than four hours pass between meals. When you aren’t famished when you sit down to eat, you can eat at a more natural pace. Drinking a large glass of water with your meals can also help you slow down and improve digestion.
What about fasting? Yeah, it’s got great health benefits, but we also see a loss of beneficial bacteria. They need to eat too so if you’re having gut trouble, occasional fasting can be good but be careful not to wipe out the remaining friends you’ve got.
Slowing down during mealtimes makes those experiences much more enjoyable and it allows you to absorb more nutrients effectively, in turn boosting your overall health.
Feeling stressed? Check your gut.
Whether it’s business meetings, charity work, time with friends, or family obligations—we’re always in go-mode these days.
But the heightened sense of urgency that comes with our fast-paced, modern lives causes unhealthy stress levels. Just thinking about all of your obligations can put your stomach in knots. And there’s a reason for this.
The Journal of Physiology and Pharmacologya recent study showing that consistent stress negatively impacts your good gut flora. And when it comes to gut health, you want your flora to be diverse and plentiful. When your good microbes are weakened from stress, it impacts the integrity of your gut lining and can manifest in many health issues. In fact, a stressed microbiome can lead to the type of inflammation that causes depression and anxiety.
Luckily, stress can be managed. And the microbiome is adaptable. By taking daily steps to improve our microbial health and working to reduce stress levels, we can vastly improve our overall health.
Your microbiome may be keeping you awake at night.
Poor gut health has domino effects on all other aspects of your health, including sleep. While we’re still just beginning to understand the dynamic relationship between sleep and the microbiome, it’s clear that not sleeping enough can negatively impact gut health, just as bad gut health can negatively impact sleep.
Like sleep, our microbiome is regulated by circadian rhythms. And when these rhythms are disrupted, the health and functioning of the microbiome suffers.by European scientists found that after just two nights of partial sleep deprivation, participants experienced: a significant decrease in types of healthy bacteria, changes in the microbiome that are linked to obesity and diabetes, and a significant decrease in insulin.
And just as lack of sleep weakens our microbiome, a strong microbiome can help foster sleep. This is because the intestinal microbiome releases many of the same sleep-producing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin, as the brain. So the relationship between sleep and the microbiome should be viewed as a two-way street.
The human microbiome is a relatively new, but incredibly exciting and important, field of study. It’s the missing piece in the wellness puzzle. When utilized properly, probiotics can be an awesome aid in the quest for good gut health, but we should never expect it to be some sort of silver bullet.
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