“We think of the Western diet – high in unhealthy fats, sugar and proteins – as overly rich. But what’s missing from the diet may be just as, and perhaps more, important than what’s abundant.” – Moises Velasquez-Manoff, Nautilus Magazine
The gut can be relatively low on our list of organ-related health topics, often overcome by the heart, the liver, or the brain. Furthermore, we tend to think of bacteria as a bad thing- something to be avoided and certainly not to be supplemented. However, bacteria, in the gut, play a critically important role in overall health, particularly mental health and thus deserve consideration. Here we will take a closer look at what we mean by the ‘gut microbiome,’ the connection between a healthy microbiome and a healthy nervous and immune system, and how our diet impacts the health of this microbiome over time.
When we use the term ‘micro biome,’ this generally refers to the set of microorganisms in a particular environment, whether it is the gut, the skin, or the mouth. Within the human body, each of this microbiota plays an invisible but vital role. For instance, researchers have identified a distinct nervous system in the gut known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS has been shown to play a key role in digestion as well as mental health, with “irritation in the gastrointestinal system which sends signals to the central nervous system that trigger mood changes” (Johns Hopkins Medical Center). Furthermore, “scientists suspect our intestinal community of microbes, the human microbiota, calibrates our immune and metabolic function and that its corruption or depletion can increase the risk of chronic diseases ranging from asthma to obesity” (Nautilus). This correlation between gut health, chronic disease and mental health is most notable when comparing traditional hunter-gatherer cultures to communities that live on a modern, Westernized diet.
Microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg of Stanford University carried out a 2010 study comparing the diversity of gut bacteria between villagers in Burkina Faso with those in Florence, Italy. What he found was that “it was the most different human microbiota…ever seen” and that “the Western microbiome…might be considerably different than the community that prevailed during most of human evolution” (Nautilus). The core outcome of this research being that microbial diversity in the gut helps fend off chronic disease and that as we evolved our gut bacteria flourished and multiplied as well. However, as we reached the Industrial Revolution and moved away from agricultural, hunter-gatherer societies we suddenly removed ourselves from regular contact with the environments in which we evolved. As a result, children are now raised in chemically sterilized settings and consume processed foods that lack the bacterial diversity of organic sources.
While all factors surely play a role, the Sonnenburgs and others have concluded that a lack of fiber is likely the key factor leading to modern microbiome ‘starvation.’ One study in Europe looked at 500,000 people from ten different countries. This study showed that those who ate more than 30 grams of fiber per day (soluble plus insoluble) had approximately half the risk of colon cancer as compared with those who ate 12-15 grams of fiber daily.
This connection between fiber and gut health is primarily due to fermentation. When insoluble fiber is digested in the gut, short-chain fatty acid by-products are produced. These acids correlate with a low incidence of disease by acting as anti-inflammatory agents in the immune system. Today, however, refined sugars and antibiotics are causing us to suffer a kind of ‘fermentation by-product deficiency’ (Nautilus). The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently recommends between 25 and 38 grams of fiber per day, with the average intake at only 15 grams. Below is a list of high-fiber foods that, when consumed regularly, may help to restore a depleted gut microbiota:
- Brown/wild rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Peanuts or sunflower seeds
In addition to incorporating more fiber into your diet, another way of supporting your gut microbiome is through probiotics. ‘Probiotic’ is essentially the scientific term for beneficial bacteria. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were cultivating food from the land and eating it directly. As a result, many of the microorganisms in the soil entered their digestive systems and helped to build microbial diversity. Unfortunately, in our modern era of industrialized, processed foods we are no longer exposed to these organisms. By taking a daily probiotic supplement, you can help to restore your natural gut flora which leads to a host of other health benefits including more efficient digestion, enhanced mental clarity and increased energy levels.
Nutritionist Kimberly Snyder has developed a line of probiotics based specifically on ‘soil-based organisms,’ or SBOs. These bacteria are derived from the soil that was once consumed with foods from the garden or the trees. While this is one option among many, taking any form of daily probiotic is a highly effective method for replenishing a ‘starved’ gut microbiome and restoring your energy levels as well as helping to fight off chronic disease. Follow this link to learn more about Kimberly’s SBOs http://kimberlysnyder.com/blog/2013/09/22/why-i-created-a-probiotic-before-any-other-nutritional-product/ and remember, bacteria is not always a bad thing!
You can also follow this link to learn more about the cutting-edge research into our microbiome: National Institutes of Health Human Microbiome Project: http://hmpdacc.org.