Starting with your belly.
If I were asked to give you one essential truth that affected all aspects of your health (and this week I was) it would be this: you’re not human. Well, you’re just not human. There are approximately ten times more cells in your body containing bacterial DNA than cells with the human genome sequence.
Your body is a lustrous harmonization of bacterial, fungal, viral, and human cells, all contributing to the health or dis-ease you experience each moment. Most of these non-human cells are contained within your digestive tract, with a much smaller number existing on your skin.
Collectively these colonies of microbes are referred to as your microbiome. It has only been within the past ten to fifteen years that doctors and researchers have begun acknowledging the importance your microbiome has on your overall health. Spanning the entire spectrum of disorders, from purely physical ailments to psychological and emotional disturbances, this bacterial dominant micro-verse is directly related to every aspect of your functioning body.
This isn’t a scenario you should overthink too much. Not yet, anyway. Generally speaking, simple is better. For our purposes there are two types of bacterial colonies: beneficial bacteria and harmful bacteria. Now that’s not true, it’s just where we’re starting. There are thousands of different bacterial colonies living in your body, good ones and bad ones.
This example works because there are definite, simple things you can do to encourage thehealth of beneficial bacteria in your gut and definite, simple things you can do to discourage the growth of harmful bacteria in your gut. Really, your health is centered around what team is winning in your gut.
Gut microbes contribute to the generation of everything from producing anti-inflammatory molecules to vitamins, help convert the food we eat to usable energy, and can either aid or harm your health, depending on which bacteria you feed. I’ve said many times, and you can look it up in the research, 80% of your immune system is found in your gut. 80%! If your gut health is poor that also means your immune system is compromised and you’ll be more susceptible to infections and illnesses that are preventable. I’m talking seasonal allergies, chronic sinus infections, autoimmune diseases… it all boils down to how healthy your belly is.
So it’s best to eat with your health and your microbiome health in mind. I will elaborate more on this at another time, but if you don’t do anything else for your health, a daily probiotic is the simplest and most effective thing to add to your diet. Take a clean one, one that needs to be refrigerated. This will slow down the bacterial life cycle while they’re not working for you, and decreases the chance of getting dead strands in your supplement.
Processed foods high in trans-fats, sugar, corn syrup, additives, and preservatives wreck yourgut health in a number of ways. Did you know when you eat processed food your body actually releases antibodies meant to fight off foreign invaders? It does, not in small part because most of those additives aren’t proper food, they are chemical agents.
Your body has no clue what those things are. So what does it do? It holds onto them to fight them, and this creates inflammation on a cellular level. Instead of fighting off other invaders, your immune system is busy fighting something you intentionally ingested.
When released regularly and in large quantities these antibodies will start to attack and deteriorate healthy tissue throughout your gut and blood stream. So what goes in your gut, has a bigger effect on your health than you may have thought. And the fight often doesn’t happen immediately. Something you eat on Monday could cause issues on Saturday.
In addition, these low-nutrition, convenience foods have been proven to significantly increasethe number of pathogenic microbes in your gut, while starving beneficial microbes from lack of usable nutrients. A study conducted by Cornell University actually tested the effects to your microbiome from eating processed foods exclusively for 10 days. Based on before and after microbial samples, almost 40% of bacterial diversity was destroyed. Processed foods deprive beneficial bacteria of the nutrition they need to help you achieve optimal health, but provide just the junk pathogenic colonies need to thrive. This creates a very problematic imbalance that leads to chronic health issues over time.
What you can do
There is no universal answer (or diet) for optimal gut health, but there are several things you can do to help your microbiome flourish.
Avoid eating too much processed grain and processed sugar. Your body does need certain whole grains, though. The right kinds will help create a healthy environment for the beneficial bacteria to make a home in. No home, no good bacteria.
To be clear, what I mean by too much processed grains is eating grains more than twice a day. Making general rules like this is a tricky subject, because everybody’s belly is different, but it’s easy to take note of how many refined carbohydrates and grains you are consuming.
Your body NEEDS carbohydrates. People come to me all the time with trouble sleeping and the first thing I usually recommend is to add more whole grains and carbs into their diet. It normally fixes the issue. However, you can go over board. So if you are just starting to tweak things, please look at how much you’re currently eating. You may need more grains, you may need less. Just make sure they are organic and whole, never refined or processed.
Eat for your body type. Now, this can be tricky, because not many people “know” what their body type is. Some of us need more meat while others need more vegetables and fruits. Do a little digging into this if you can. If you can’t, pay close attention to what your stomach tells you. Does eating one thing makeyou feel bloated and tired, while something else leaves you satiated and energized? You can become highly attuned to signals your gut and microbiome is sending to the rest of your body.
Don’t believe me? Eat nothing but raw fruits and vegetables for a week. When that week is over, go binge on a Big Mac, fries, and a milk shake. Then see what your stomach has to say.
Generally speaking though, you want lots of diversity and lots of whole, unprocessed foods thatdon’t come in a package. Eating the same caesar salad for lunch every day for a month isn’t going to cut it. That’s going to feed to same colonies of bacteria while starving the other ones. And what you’re going for is a healthy diversity. This will do two things that work in conjunction. You’re providing your own body with a wide array of nutritional components as well as giving your microbiome what it needs to foster an active, diversified, and beneficial population of bacterial colonies.
Let me just preface for all my food sensitive souls out there who are sensitive to tyramine or phenylethylamine– you can skip this section because these foods are going to do more harm for you than good. If you are sensitive to aged foods, this is NOT the route for you to take. Getting your beneficial bacteria from probiotics is the way to go for you. If you are not sensitive to aged foods, fermented foods can be a great way to introduce beneficial bacteria in a cultured and natural way.
Fermented foods are a staple of essentially every ancient culture known to man. Sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, cheese; you’ve eaten fermented foods even if you didn’t know it.
During the fermentation process, healthy bacteria colonies eat sugar and other molecules and convert them to readily available nutrients and enzymes. It’s essentially a pre-digested food, where the bacteria has done most of the hard work for you already. Consuming naturally fermented foods will introduce those beneficial bacterial colonies to your gut microbiome, which is an added benefit on top of all those readily available nutrients.
This is a personal journey into a vital component of health that not enough people are aware of. Take some guidance along they way, be a little daring when trying out new things, and most importantly, listen to what you’re gut is trying to tell you. You are the ultimate authority when it comes to your own health and well-being, and this is arguably the best place to start.