The microbes, aka bacteria, in your gut have been getting a lot of press lately. Dysbiosis, imbalance of good/bad bacteria in the intestines, is implicated in depression, cancer, and even eating disorders. Yeah, the microbes in your gut are influencing your appetite. The brain is being influenced by your intestinal flora in everything from anorexia to binge eating.
Many are looking to probiotic-supplements for the answer. It’s a growing industry in the US, reaching $3.3 billion in 2015. But dumping good bacteria into an unhealthy gut environment can’t solve the problem on its own. It would be like tossing grass seed on a sandy lot and expecting the grass to grow and soil to improve.
The foods we eat, things we think, and our emotions can all influence our microbes. Creating an environment that promotes healthy gut bacteria may be as, if not more, important as seeding the right bacteria.
Probiotic foods, like sauerkraut and pickles, and supplements are important for gut health. But we’re going to focus on things to do, and not do, to promote healthy microbes.
Food for your gut
Your not just feeding your own trillions of cells, but tens of trillions of bacteria. Similar to our own bodies, what we put in influences what our microbes put out. So, what do they need? And what do they not need?
One of the best things for your microbes is dietary fiber. Fiber is a component of fruits, vegetables, and beans that our bodies can’t absorb. But it’s the favorite food source for our good bacteria. Under the age of 50, women should get 21 to 25 grams of fiber and men should get 30 to 38 grams. When our microbes get the fiber they need, the produce short-chain fatty acids that help prevent inflammation and stimulate nerves to move things along the tract.
Timing of your fiber intake is also important. Much like us, gut microbes have circadian rhythm. That means they have a wake-sleep cycle that can even influences ours. Fiber in the morning can make the difference in waking them up or disrupting their rhythm. Think about an average American breakfast; sausage, eggs, bacon, and sugary pancakes or waffles. Virtually no fiber is present (or none if you skip breakfast). It can cause gut bacteria to produce chemicals that zap our energy and make us feel sluggish.
While we’re feeding our good bacteria we also want to make sure we’re not feeding the bad variety. These bacteria can release harmful chemicals that cause inflammation, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. The culprits? Sugar and unhealthy fats. This can also weaken the mucous lining of the intestines and lead to chronic problems like diabetes and heart disease.
You know that gut feeling you get sometimes. That’s because there is a network of nerves around your gut that communicates with the network in our head. This connect means that our thoughts, worries, and emotions can influence function in our intestines and vice versa. And that is also why dysbiosis has been implicated in depression.
When your anxious or stressed, gut function can suffer. This long term flight-or-fight response cause blood flow to the region to be reduced and bowel motility to decrease. This negatively affects the bacteria regardless of how many probiotics you’re taking. Take a break from time-to-time, workout, or practice meditation to release stress.
Missing a good night’s sleep can also affect our microbes. Staying up late can disrupt their circadian rhythms and prevent them from thoroughly digesting all the meals of the day. Don’t make them work a 3rd shift!
Create the right environment
Taking the steps to aid your good bacteria might be a bit of challenge, but it’s worth it. In addition to the health benefits, having a gut full of healthy bacteria can be useful when you need to use antibiotics for an infection elsewhere in the body. Some will be killed, but hopefully enough will remain to grow again. And don’t use unnecessary antibiotics not prescribed by a doctor.
Striving for a healthy gut environment now may help prevent more significant interventions down the road. In serious cases of dysbiosis, diet and probiotics are not enough to reverse the imbalance. A fecal microbiota transplant may be used. It is what it sounds like. Healthy poop is transplanted from a donor to seed good bacteria in the recipient. If that’s something you want to avoid, try adding some fruits and vegetables and kicking sugar.