I typed the phrase “healthy microbiome” into google, and the first two results that came up were “The Microbiome Diet” and “Clean Eating for the Gut Microbiome.”
On one hand, I want to laugh, because dieting and food restrictions are like the #1 way to reduce the diversity (health) of your gut microbiome. On the other hand, I wanted to scream, because this is the exact type of diet-centered misinformation that makes people sicker.
Gut Microbiome 101
Most of us nowadays have heard of the gut microbiome, and know that it’s an important factor in human health. Basically, the bacterial that live in our intestines (and frankly, everywhere else on our bodies) play a huge role in determining the health of every system of our body. Here’s why:
The bacteria that make up our microbiome…
- Synthesize the majority of the vitamins our bodies need, and convert them into the form that our bodies can use. (For example…we can’t meet our daily iron needs by chewing on a piece of steel. Steel doesn’t offer our bodies a source of “bioavailable” iron, but red meat does.)
- Detoxify chemicals and waste
- Modulate methylation pathways that “turn on” and “turn off” certain genes
- Produce byproducts that modulate metabolism, immunity, hormonal signaling, neurotransmitter function, etc.
- Serve as “antibiotics” by producing chemicals that kill pathogens, and by crowding out foreign invaders
- …and more!
Diversity is Essential
When it comes to bacteria, the more diverse, the better. Basically, we have a healthy microbiome when it is made up of lots of different kinds of bacteria rather than all one species. Think of it this way: the more types of different bacteria we have, the more types of things those bacteria can do for us, from the above list. When we limit the diversity of our microbiome, we limit its function. When we limit its function, we make ourselves more susceptible to disease…
- Vitamin and nutrient deficiencies
- Toxic metabolic states and buildup of waste
- Good genes stay “turned off” and bad genes get “turned on”
- Loss of control of metabolism, immunity, hormonal signaling, neurotransmitter function, etc.
- Susceptibility to infections
- Development of auto-immune reactions
Diet and Diversity
While many different outside influences affect our gut microbiome (everything from smoking, to stress, to environmental chemical exposures like antibiotics), one of the most profound (and obvious) influences is our diet. This is because the things that we eat end up becoming food for the bacteria living in our digestive system. The bacteria break down the food we eat, converting it into a usable form for the human body, but the bacteria themselves also are nourished from the food we eat. When we don’t eat a diverse diet that includes the food needed to sustain a diverse microbiome, many of those bacteria diet off. Our microbiom “is” what we eat, essentially. Or, at the very least, it’s fed by what we do or don’t eat.
So, the #1 way to cultivate a healthy, diverse microbiome is to eat a diverse diet — the antithesis of dieting.
Have you ever seen those advertisements that say things like “Eat this one food daily and cure cancer forever” or “Doctor discovers how to add 10 years to your life by eating this one food!”
Of course, most of us know those headlines are ridiculous. But the diet industry as a whole does that exact thing. Take Whole 30 for example — you restrict all kinds of foods and fiber sources, omitting entire categories of foods, and you’re supposed to be able to dramatically improve your health. Atkins and keto cut out carbs, including carbohydrate containing fruits and vegetables. Other diet programs restrict food consumption, replacing meals with bars and shakes. As a whole, dieting reduces the variety in what we eat, thereby limiting the diversity of our microbiome.
A huge part of what I do in the field of functional medicine involves helping patients heal their bodies (including the health of their microbiome) by using dietary interventions. But the goal of these interventions in the field of natural health is always, always, always to promote the diversity of what patients are eating, not to limit them!
Practical Ways to Promote the Diversity of Your Microbiome (Without Dieting)
- Eat as many different types of plants as possible each day. Research shows that individuals who consume at least 30 plants per week have significantly improved microbiome diversity and health outcomes than those with 10 or fewer.
- Take a daily probiotic. Not all bacteria are created equal, and not all bacteria survive the journey from the swallowing of the pill to the intestines. My favorite probiotic brand is Garden of Life, and they make specific blends for women’s health.
- Avoid antibiotics as much as you can. Of course, antibiotic medicines save lives, but avoiding unnecessary exposure protects the diversity of your microbiome. Choose healthcare providers who are committed to a holistic approach to medicine, and take steps at home to support your immune system. My husband and I supplement daily with vitamin C, vitamin D, cod liver oil, and a daily multivitamin. Links provided are the ones I take, personally.
- Avoid using ultra-strength and bleach-based disinfectants. These cleaners absorb through the skin and not only can cause organ damage, but kill microbes. They also leave residues on surfaces that can later be ingested or absorbed after contact.
- Get enough sleep, limit stress, and exercise in a way that feels good in your body. For tips on how to cultivate healthy habits in these areas, download my healthy habits e-book for free. You can also check out my daily wellness guide, Healthy, Happy, Whole on amazon.