The microbiome is cutting edge science meets traditional food preservation methods. It can be influenced by incredibly sophisticated supplements and medical procedures and the foods you choose to put into your body. The microbiome essentially means the many microscopic life forms that live within and on our bodies. These can be bacteria, virus, fungi or archaea (a group of organisms that used to be called bacteria but are now recognized independently) and their genes. There are many more cells by count in the microbiome than human cells in our body! And anyone who has gotten diarrhea or a yeast infection after antibiotics has some understanding that these are important for our health.
The human microbiome is vitally important for our health and serves many functions:
- protection against pathogenic organisms
- conversion of nutrients into their active or bioavailable forms
- aid in food digestion
- important in immune function and regulation
- strengthen gut barrier (that is, counter “leaky” gut)
- strengthen blood-brain barrier important for brain health (leaky gut – leaky brain)
- help with blood sugar balance
- lower blood lipids
- likely participate in the formation of neurotransmitters (a large amount of which are produced around the gut!)
- and more…the list is growing in this widely researched arena
The microbiome is also vulnerable to many insults and can be impacted negatively by a variety of factors. These include antibiotics (including those found in food), pesticides, other pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, chronic stress, air pollution and diet. We can make choices about some of these, but none more than diet.
Data from the American Gut Project has revealed that the diversity of plants that a subject consumes is associated with microbial diversity. Consuming 30 types of plants per week and consuming more vegetables and fruits was associated with a higher abundance of conjugated linoleic acid – which is generally related to reduced inflammation and cardiovascular disease – and a reduction in antibiotic resistance genes. The fact that microbial communities tend to group by macronutrient and micronutrient intake levels in a person diet rather than by diet type highlights the contribution of dietary nutrients in regulating gut microbial metabolism.McDonald D et al, mSystems 2018 ; 3(3) :e00031-18
Some of my patients have heard me talk about this research and encourage them to eat 30 plants a week. This is important in general, but it has been suggested that this is also important in our recovery from changes in our immune system resulting from masking and sanitizing during the pandemic, vaccination and viral infection. The microbes which live in our guts consume the indigestible fibers from plant foods and as the quote above says – more diverse plant foods = more diverse fibers = more diverse microbiome. A diverse microbiome is associated with a positive impact on health. The last line, about the diet type, refers to if the diet was vegan, pescatarian, no red meat or omnivore and states that this made less difference than did the diversity of plant based foods eaten. Regardless of your dietary preferences or ethical choices, eating a diet rich in diverse plant foods is accessible and associated with good health outcomes.
How to Eat 30 Plants A Week
So it might seem daunting when you just hear that number and considering that many Americans are eating 10 or fewer plant foods per week, it may take a little work, but its definitely doable. First, what foods are included: vegetables (of course!), fruits, nuts, seeds, beans/legumes and whole grains. Also included are spices, though these are counted as 1/4 because they are typically used in lesser amounts. Oils, juices and refined grains have had the fiber removed and that’s the part of these foods that feeds the microbiome so these don’t count. Here are a few tips to get started:
- Start where you are – consider counting the various plant based foods you’ve eaten today or this week to get an idea about what you are currently eating. Any increase in diversity is an improvement!
- Increase gradually in quantity – adding a lot of new fibrous foods can cause some gas and bloating so it’s okay to increase slowly
- If there are foods you eat every week, keep eating those and try to add 1 new food per week. Some subtle additions:
- Try cauliflower rice instead of white rice
- Add some ground chia or flax seeds to a soup, smoothie or salad (I suggest adding to dressing then dressing salad)
- Switch from a refined grain to a whole grain, like white rice to brown or try a new grain, like quinoa or millet
- Add some pink/red lentils to any soup recipe – I like to add them to blended soups as they add fiber and protein while being essentially undetectable
- Instead of buying a head of lettuce, try a bag of mixed greens – each type of green has different fibers that encourage microbial diversity
- If 30 seems daunting, work on eating the rainbow each week, then challenge yourself to get many colors per day
- RED: beets, red bell pepper, tomato, strawberries, cherries
- ORANGE: orange bell pepper, carrot, butternut squash, yams, oranges, peach
- YELLOW: summer squash, wax beans, spaghetti squash, yellow bell pepper, lemon zest, pineapple, corn
- GREEN: lettuce, kale and other green leafy veg, cucumber, celery, green beans, olives, kiwi
- BLUE and VIOLET (red-purple): red cabbage, red onion, eggplant, purple potatoes, blueberries, black berries
- WHITE/TAN/BROWN – mushrooms, onions, garlic, jicama, cauliflower
- Try eating at least 5 servings of vegetables per day, plus fruit if you choose
- Hint: a green smoothie is a delicious and easy way to get a serving of fruit and veg
- Periodically count your points towards 30 and see how things have changed. Does that reflect a change in how you feel too?
Other Tips For a Healthy Microbiome
There are other things you can do to support a healthy microbiome. Use antibiotics judiciously – this doesn’t necessarily mean never, but it also doesn’t mean to request a z-pack with every sniffle. Naturopathic medicine has a lot of herbal treatment options which don’t seem to result in the same kinds of antibiotic resistance and may not have such a negative impact on the microbiome. But if you need antibiotics, you need them – I always tell my patients that if I’m suggesting antibiotics, you really do need them. When taking antibiotics, you can also help your microbiome by using probiotics and in particular, the probiotic yeast, saccharomyces boulardii, which has been shown to reduce antibiotic induced diarrhea and complications such as C. difficile infection.
You can also get probiotics directly in diet by consuming live fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kim chi, yogurt, kefir or kombucha. The yogurt and kefir can be dairy or nondairy. Read the labels and look for the words “live culture” to ensure you are getting those great bacterial cultures.
Being stressed out is not “all in your head.” There are neuro-endocrine (endocrine means hormone) changes as a result of acute and chronic stress. The body cannot distinguish between modern stressors and life threatening concerns and responds in such a way as to support your fight or flight response (which also includes freezing as a possible response). With acute stressors, these changes reverse and the body returns to a resting state. In chronic stress, either the body does not return to the resting state or the resting state becomes more heightened. Either way, these changes have a negative impact on the digestive tract and the microbiome. So dealing with stress is an important part of having a healthy microbiome and all the arenas of health that this impacts (hint: it’s all of them). Stress management strategies may include eliminating some stressors and finding healthy coping mechanisms for those outside of our control. I find walking outside and meditation (here’s a guided meditation I refer a lot of my patients to to get started) to be fairly accessible strategies to start with.
If you need support and a plan to improve your health, I’m here to help.