The Microbiome

So, this post is a little different than some of my others. It’s less about fitness, and at first blush, maybe it only flirts with the nutrition side of this blog. However, for one reason or another, I keep bumping into it in the things I read, or podcasts I listen to lately. There are all sorts of claims made about it, ranging from weight loss, to mood alteration, to its ability to boost the immune system. With that in mind, it seems like a natural topic to cover, because there seems to be a huge range of information out there about strengthening it or the downside of having a weak microbiome. Some of the information is pretty scientific stuff, and some of it is bordering on the health effects wearing crystals – no offense intended if wearing crystals is your thing! The point being is it’s hard to know what may be real, and what may be junk science. So let’s take a good look and see if we can uncover some truths!

What Is The Microbiome?

Let’s start with defining just what the heck we’re talking about! There are a few ways to refer to the microbiome, one of the most popular refers to “gut health”. The thing is, each and every one of us is host to a massive colony of microscopic organisms (over 1,000 species have been identified) collectively referred to as “microbiota” these include bacteria, archaea, fungi, protists and viruses. They don’t just live in our gut, they live – literally – all over and within us, but the vast majority do live in the gut, specifically, the large intestine. Some of these little guys simply coexist with us, some help us, and some can harm us, and there are a LOT of them. By some estimates, there are up to 10 times as many of their cells as there are of your own, so it might be safe to ask if you’re really “you”!

OK, creepy thoughts aside, clearly they represent a large part of your body, and they provide a large number of functions that keep us healthy, including helping us digest our food, regulate our immune system, fight off bacteria that might harm us and produce a number of vitamins, including K, B, B12, Thiamine and Riboflavin. An imbalance of healthy and unhealthy microbes can contribute to high blood sugar, weight gain, high cholesterol, and a number of other health issues. Additionally, there is evidence that the microbiome may also affect the central nervous system, and thereby, brain health. Clearly, this is a pretty important part of – well, you!

OK, So This is a Big Part of Me, But Why Are We Talking About it?

Simply put, because there is a lot of information floating around out there about keeping this part of you happy and healthy in order to live a long healthy life. The goal, of course, being to strengthen the “good” bacteria” and weaken, or diminish “the bad bacteria”. It seems simple enough, intentionally consume the good stuff, and or create an environment in your body that encourages the growth of the “good stuff”. The juggernaut that is the health food industry has gotten ahold of this, and actively markets many products as “probiotic”. So I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at whether or not some of these food items can actually help. After all, this is the same industry that’s marketing things like granola bars as “healthy” when many of them are glorified candy bars – anything to sell a product! So let’s dig in!

What Can Help Me “Strengthen My Gut”?

First of all, is it even possible to eat foods that can help you increase the good bacteria in your microbiome? According to a study on NCBI, it may be difficult to “preserve the efficacy of probiotic bacteria”. In English, I understand that to mean, that while these probiotic foods may start off with good bacteria in them, the bacteria may die off prior to you consuming them. However, there is PLENTY of research that seems to indicate that you can consume probiotics in order to increase your “good bateria”. The goal then is to determine whether or not a food you purchase contains active probiotics.

But that’s just half the battle. The other half is making sure that you’re creating an environment in your body that’s conducive to helping these little guys survive! The way you do that, is primarily through your diet. By making sure that you aren’t consuming things that may harm your microbiome. Some things to be aware of include:

  • Consuming a diet heavy in plant based foods.
  • Eating fermented foods (like yogurt, sauerkraut or kimchi)
  • Consuming pre- and pro-biotics
  • Limiting your sugar consumption
  • Taking a collagen supplement or eating foods rich in collagen
  • Avoiding antibiotic medicines if possible – obviously, this isn’t always an option!

So let’s talk about some specific examples of foods that claim to aid in increasing the good bacteria as a probiotic.

Kombucha
Kombucha is a fermented beverage that’s tart and a little bit sweet – probably best compared to a sour sparkling apple cider. Some people love the stuff, some do not – I fall into the latter category, but give it a try, you might love it! Kombucha does indeed contain probiotics, but you’ll need to be careful, some store bought Kombucha goes through a pasteurization process to increase shelf life, but that can kill the probiotics that were grown during the fermentation process. Some will add synthesized probiotics back in AFTER the pasteurization process, but these synthesized probiotics aren’t the same as the ones gleaned from fermentation. To make sure you’re not getting ripped off, look for brands that brew “raw fermented Kombucha”.

Yogurt
Yogurt has long been recognized as one of the best sources of probiotics! However, this blanket statement isn’t necessarily true. While all yogurts contain active, live cultures in them, not all are probiotic strains. Your best bet is too do a little research and see if your favorite falls into the probiotic category. A little cheat sheet homework for you – according to nutritionists, the following few brands should contain probiotic cultures: Yoplait light, Chobani, Fage and Greek yogurts in general. And in case you’re wondering, yes, yogurt is pasteurized, but the cultures are added in AFTER pasteurization, so you should still see a benefit. If you’re not sure, check the label, it should say “active, live cultures” on it, if it does, then you should be ok!

Sourdough Bread
Contrary to the quote you’re about to read below, and popular myth, sourdough bread, while containing probiotics in a traditional sourdough starter, kills off these probiotics when the bread is baked. So, unless you’re into eating raw bread dough (which I DON’T recommend!) Enjoy your sourdough, but understand that it’s not providing you any live probiotics.

Probiotic Water
Yes. This is a thing. Apparently, quite a popular thing. It’s expensive, if you’re comparing it to regular old water, but remember, you’re paying for the bugs! A few brands to look for are Suja – Daybreak Probiotic Water, KeVita, which has a line of sparkling probiotic beverages and Obi soda. So why go with probiotic water? Well, if you’re lactose intolerant, it makes for a quick, easy alternative to yogurt, or another dairy based option, and if you don’t like Kombucha, then it’s an easy way to chug some bacteria – that just sounds so wrong! Chug some bugs? no, that’s worse. You get the point.

So How Much Should I Be Consuming A Day?

According to an article on Popsugar:

“Probiotics are measured in CFU (colony forming units); you want to shoot for 500 million to 2 billion daily. And although doctors say you can get a good amount of probiotics from a cup of yogurt a day, or in foods like soft cheeses and sourdough bread, if you’re a vegan, lactose intolerant, or gluten intolerant, it can be tough to get your daily dose without supplements. These drinks on the market typically offer an amount in the daily recommended range, and in some cases, way beyond.”

That sounds like an incredible amount, but as they state, a single serving might include everything you need. Remember, these are microscopic bacteria we’re talking about!

I Just Can’t STAND The Idea Of Eating Bacteria! How Else Can I Increase My Gut Health?

Look, I get it. We’ve always been told that bacteria is bad for us, so the idea of willfully ingesting it is a little bit gross. But like it or not, you’re full of these little guys already. If you can’t stand the idea of strengthening them through your diet, there is some evidence that getting outside and playing/digging in the dirt can help increase your microbiome, especially in a garden full of healthy soil. Through this action, you can breathe in and become exposed to healthy bacteria that just may help increase and strengthen your microbiome.

Not a fan of dirt? Get a pet! Pets, and dogs especially have been shown to increase the diversity of your microbiome. According to an article in The New York Times, they can increase up to 56 different classes of Microbiota, cats on the other hand only raise 24 categories.

So What’s The Takeaway?

The takeaway from all of this should be an understanding that as gross as it may sound, you’re not alone. You’ve been bugged in a very real way, but that’s OK – beneficial even! Your microbiome is a very important part of you and your long term health. So it might make sense to take some steps to ensure that you’re keeping yours healthy. Unfortunately, like most things in the health food category, it’s smart to research the foods that you buy to increase and strengthen your microbiome, because there are a lot of unscrupulous companies out there that might try to take advantage of your awareness and desire to do the right thing and sell you a product that isn’t really living up to its claims.

Know someone who might like this article? Please share it with them, or via your social media network, it helps the blog out, and you never know who you might be responsible for motivating to live a healthier lifestyle!

Resources

The University of Washington – Facts about the human microbiome

Healthline – Why the Gut Microbiome Is Crucial for Your Health

Mind-altering Microorganisms: The Impact of the Gut Microbiota on Brain and Behaviour

NCBI Study – Probiotics in Food Systems: Significance and Emerging Strategies Towards Improved Viability and Delivery of Enhanced Beneficial Value

The Sneaky Truth About Store-Bought Kombucha

But Seriously, WTF Is Probiotic Water?

Dirt has a microbiome, and it may double as an antidepressant

The New York Times – Are Pets The new Probiotic?

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