Move over, kale! There’s a new celeb on the health scene: the gut microbiome.
As with any new health trend, there are many costly products that come with it. In this case, they claim to optimize gut function. But are they worth it? A basic understanding of your gut can go a long way on the road to health and longevity, and it can save your pocketbook some hard-earned dollars.
The gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is a 25-foot tube that runs from your chopper to your romper, and has the surface area of a badminton court! Bacteria, both "good" and "bad," live inside this tube.
The gut microbiome consists of all microbial cells within the gut, plus the genes associated with them. Historically, we’ve waged war on all microbes in the gut. However, the last 20 years have seen a surge in research and appreciation for the "good" bacteria taking up residence in the gut. These good bacteria help break down foods, like insoluble fiber, that human cells cannot digest on their own.
Aside from the obvious role the gut plays in the digestion and absorption of food, it also plays a major role in how you think, feel and act. Your health is dependent on the type and variety of bacteria living in the gut.
Cultivating a healthy diversity of bacteria in and on you is influenced by personal and environmental factors. Food choices, the use of antibiotics, pre and probiotics, place and type of birth, dwelling place, intimacy, grooming, food sharing, physical activity, sleep and stress all facilitate profound shifts in microbiome health.
Loss of microbial diversity is associated with chronic diseases such as obesity, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, neurodegenerative diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, depression and others. The organisms living in the gut are central to immune function, weight management, susceptibility to chronic diseases, and mental health.
Small lifestyle changes, along with how and what you choose to eat, are key factors for maintaining a diverse and healthy gut microbiome. Try out a few of the suggestions below. Play the role of a scientist with your gut by trying one small change at a time. Stick with it for a few weeks in order to determine the effects on digestion, energy levels and mood states.
- Start the day with lemon water to spark the digestive system. Add a dose of ginger for an extra kick!
- The digestion process starts by smelling the fragrant scent of a meal, producing saliva that contains valuable enzymes for breaking down food. Chew your food. While it sounds simple, it's hard to chew food until it becomes a liquid.
- Slow down. Satiety hormones need time to inform the brain that you are full. If you eat too quickly, you’ll always think there is room for dessert. If you do opt in to dessert, be sure to share. Not only is sharing caring, it also promotes diversity within the gut microbiome. (Might as well seal it with a kiss for additional microbial benefits!)
- A gut-friendly diet maximizes fiber intake, both soluble and insoluble (from real food, not fiber bars). While human cells do not digest insoluble fiber very well, it does provide an excellent source of food for good gut bacteria. Plants have lots of fiber. Eat a diverse array of plants and remember to spice it up.
- Limit sugar, real and fake.
- Antibiotic use has consequences. Good microbes suffer from the presence of antimicrobials. Use antibiotics only when you need to, and only for the conditions they are prescribed for.
During your personal science experiment, listening to what’s working and what's not working. This is a valuable way to cultivate the wisdom that already lies within your own being. Changing lifestyle and dietary habits takes time. Be patient, and remember to start with small changes. You might just find you’re feeling better, thinking better, and moving better. If all else fails, and digestion still ails, there is always a poo transplant … but we’ll save that topic for another day.
Stay tuned for Gut Health 201!
Jordan Ciambrone is the Senior Director of Corporate Relations at the YMCA. She leads a team of health professionals in designing and implementing Employee Wellness programs for various organizations throughout Colorado.