By: Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD
One of the core beliefs of functional medicine is that a person’s health is largely influenced by the health of their gut microbiome.
Over the years this concept has slowly become more mainstream in medicine with researchers looking at the association between the gut microbiome and lung disease; hypertension; type 2 diabetes; obesity; cardiovascular disease; cystic fibrosis; and colorectal, prostate and gastric cancers. It has become evident that the 100 trillion bacteria that live in the gut can become imbalanced which can cause internal dysfunction and trigger the onset of chronic disease. While an unhealthy microbiome can increase risk of disease, a healthy microbiome can promote optimal health and wellness.
There are only two proven ways to shape the micro flora (gut bacteria balance) long-term: diet and fecal transplants. Long-term dietary changes have demonstrated an ability to shape the relative abundance of dominant strains of bacteria and feed various populations of specific bacteria groups. The profile of a person’s gut microbiome is significantly influenced at the start of life—based on whether a baby is bottle or breast feeding and vaginal or c-section delivery. As a person ages there are factors that can compromise the health of the micro flora balance such as excessive stress, overuse of antibiotics, inflammatory foods and weight gain.
The process of creating optimal health typically starts with addressing the health of the gut microbiome. These actions can improve symptoms such as abdominal bloating, diarrhea, brain fog and fatigue. Use the following five habits to start supporting your healthy gut microbiome.
- Try to Use Nutrition as Your First Line of Intervention
Antibiotics have been a great advancement in medicine but run the risk of being overprescribed. The long-term use of antibiotics can destroy the balance of your bacteria, contributing to poor gut health. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pew Charitable Trust recently found that 30% of antibiotics that are prescribed by doctors are unnecessary–that equates to about 47 million prescriptions per year. Be sure to ask your doctor whether the antibiotics are medically necessary and whether they would be recommend taking a probiotic.
Another commonly prescribed group of drugs are proton pump inhibitors which are used for individuals that have acid reflux or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. A 2016 study http://gut.bmj.com/content/65/5/740.long and previous studies have showed that proton pump inhibitors are associated with unhealthy changes in the gut microbiome, including lower levels of diversity. If your doctor is prescribing a proton pump inhibitor, ask them for a referral to a dietitian that can assist in dietary intervention in conjunction with your doctor’s plan of care because weight loss and nutrition can help improve and/or resolve reflux.
- Increase Your Fiber Intake
Less than three percent of Americans meet the recommended intake for fiber in their diet. This is a major public health concern because fiber plays a critical role in feeding a healthy gut, lowering cholesterol, reducing cravings, and many important things. Researchers compared the diets and gut health of children from a village in West Africa compared to children in Italy. The African children consumed fiber-rich foods such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables whereas the Italians primarily consumed meat, fat and sugar. The study found that the children from Africa had healthier guts with more diversity which helped protect them from inflammation and noninfectious colonic diseases. A paleo or pegan diet filled with lots of plant-based foods is a great ways to load up on fiber. Be sure to incorporate plenty of nuts, seeds, non-starchy vegetables, starchy vegetables and fruit.
- Rotate Your Food
In a 2016 study, researchers analyzed stool samples from over 1,000 twins in the United Kingdom and found a link between bacterial diversity and markers of heart disease and obesity, specifically abdominal adiposity. Higher levels of abdominal adiposity were associated with low bacterial diversity in the gut. The researchers also found that dietary diversity was associated with less abdominal fat. Based on these findings, try to incorporate rotation into your dietary routine instead of eating the same foods on repeat every day!
- Use Smaller Plates
Another study published in 2016 found that a variety of lifestyle factors and dietary habits had an impact on gut bacteria in the study participants. The researchers collected stool samples in order to analyze the strains of bacteria that lived in the intestines. They found that excess intake of food was associated with a decrease in the variety of bacteria in the gut. Variety in the gut is a good thing–it’s ideal to have as much variety as possible in order to achieve optimal health and wellness. They key to variety is eating small, frequent portions of food throughout the day and stop eating before you feel full. Start serving your food on smaller plates which makes it more difficult to mindlessly overeat.
- Start Making or Buying Fermented Foods
Various foods contain strains of beneficial bacteria called probiotics. While probiotic supplements can be helpful, probiotic-rich foods can be as well. Food sources of probiotics are known as fermented and they include goats yogurt, organic kefir or yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented vegetables, non-GMO tempeh, non-GMO miso, non-gmo tofu and kombucha. The 2016 study referenced in the paragraph above found that consuming yogurt and kefir was associated with increased bacterial diversity in stool samples. If you can tolerate grass-fed, organic dairy products try making or buying your own yogurt and kefir to help increase your gut bacteria!
Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD is a functional medicine dietitian nutritionist at the first hospital-based functional medicine center in the country and an adjunct instructor in Cleveland, OH. Brigid is a published author of dozens of articles for U.S. News and World Report, the Huffington Post, Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials, and ivillage. When she’s not working she’s usually in her kitchen experimenting with and photographing new recipes for her blog, Beingbrigid.com. She is completely in her element when she is cooking in the kitchen, practicing yoga, listening to her favorite country artists and relaxing with family and friends.