A microbe, or microscopic organism, is a living thing that is too small to be seen with the naked eye. This general term is used to describe bacteria, fungi, yeast, and viruses, to name a few. A microbiome is the collection of the microbes living in a given community, like the intestines in the human body. We also sometimes refer to these communities as “flora” or “microbiota”.
We begin to build our microbiome the moment we are born. How and where we’re born play a big role in the types of microbes we acquire. Babies first pick up microbes through a vaginal birth, then from every person or thing they touch, and they continue to pick up microbes throughout their lives. The microbiome isn’t fixed; it develops over time and changes in response to its environment.
What Does The Microbiome Do?
Gut bacteria affect the entire body, especially the brain through the vagus nerve. The beneficial bacteria in the gut have many functions, including:
the ability to synthesize some vitamins
help with digestion
balance mood and reduce anxiety
boost the immune system, protecting against infections and some forms of cancer
Strains of good bacteria in the gut are also associated with lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and various digestive tract diseases. If there are too many opportunistic or ‘bad’ bacteria or too few good bacteria in the microbiome, serious health problems can arise.
The population of good bacteria in your body can be inhibited or killed by stress, surgery, illness, trauma, or unhealthy eating habits.
Antibiotics can kill bad bacteria that cause disease, but they also kill off many of the beneficial microbes. We can keep our microbiomes healthy by eating foods that feed the good bacteria, and avoiding foods that encourage the growth of bad bacteria.
Feeding the Microbiome
The foods we eat have a big influence on our microbiomes. Many microbes in our guts help us extract nutrients from food we wouldn’t otherwise be able to digest. Different microbes thrive on different types of food. You can promote the growth of good bacteria (also known as probiotics) in your gut by eating foods the bacteria are known to thrive on. These foods are known as prebiotics, and they include a variety of fiber-rich foods (veggies, fruits, nuts/seeds like flax, chia, hemp).
Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Microbiome
Eat a wide variety of fiber-rich plant foods, including legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, whole grains, fruits, and especially vegetables. The more colors the better, especially red polyphenols (see attached document for help).
Limit or avoid processed foods and foods high in added sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and other non-caffeinated, unsweetened beverages like herbal teas and coconut water. If you are using a water filter, consider adding trace minerals back into it for optimal nutrients (like Trace Minerals Research).
Limit or avoid any foods to which YOU are sensitive, intolerant, or allergic. Some common examples are corn, dairy, eggs, shellfish, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, and wheat (gluten).
Take antibiotics ONLY when medically necessary. This includes prescriptions for acne, there are healthier ways. During and after completing a course of antibiotics, eat probiotic foods and take a probiotic supplement. This can help rebuild the population of healthy bacteria in your gut.
And lastly, include both prebiotic and probiotic foods in your diet every single day.
Probiotics & Prebiotics
“Good” bugs are called probiotics, and they can be constantly replenished with the right diet and supporting stress management. Probiotics need nourishing food to help them grow. Prebiotics are the fiber-rich foods that probiotics feed and grow on.
As a bonus, a compound called butyric acid is produced when the probiotics break down prebiotics in the colon. Butyric acid is the preferred form of fuel for the cells that line the colon. It also acidifies the gut, making it harder for harmful bacteria to survive.
Two of the main probiotic bacteria that reside in the digestive tract are Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. These can be taken in the form of supplements or included in the diet in the form of fermented (or probiotic) foods.
Here are some examples of common probiotic and prebiotic foods:
Dairy probiotic foods (preferably grass-fed and raw): acidophilus milk, buttermilk, cheese (aged), cottage cheese, kefir, sour cream, yogurt (plain, no added sugar, active cultures).
Non-dairy probiotic foods: fermented meats, fermented vegetables, kimchi, kombucha, kvass, miso, natto, pickled vegetables (raw - beets, carrots, radish, cucumber), sauerkraut, olives, apple cider vinegar, tempeh, sourdough, non-dairy “yogurt” and kefir (plain, no added sugar, active cultures – coconut based).
Prebiotic foods: apple, asparagus, banana, burdock, chicory, cocoa, dandelion greens, eggplant, endive, flaxseed, garlic, raw honey, Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke), jicama, konjac, leek, legumes, onion, peas, radicchio, apple cider vinegar, yacon.
Tips for Getting Probiotics
To maintain colonization in the digestive tract, probiotics must be taken or eaten regularly. General recommendations call for ingesting 1 to 25 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) daily. To put these guidelines into perspective, most store-bought probiotic yogurts contain about 1 billion CFUs per serving.
To get the maximum benefit from fermented foods, it’s important to read product labels and choose only those that contain “active, live cultures” and preferably raw, unpasteurized, perishable ingredients.
Organic brands are always the best choices, as they are not typically heat-treated after fermentation, so more of the good bacteria are present. Fermented foods can also be made at home. Though the probiotic content will vary by batch, home fermenting is a safe way to ensure that you are ingesting beneficial bacteria, as various cultures around the world have done for centuries. Remember, 1 tbsp of sauerkraut alone can give you 10 million to 10 billion CFUs!
A happy gut = a happy and robust immune system and happy brain 😊.