Nourishing the Gut Microbiome
If you thought your fingerprint was the most identifying thing about you – wait until you dive into the vast expanse of your gut microbiome. The remarkable importance of our gut health as it relates to both disease and wellbeing is an area of medicine that’s only scratching the surface now, and amazing research is coming to light. The human microbiome (which emcompases ALL of our microbes, probiotics and genes) is extremely vast, and is estimated to have a surface area of an entire tennis court. Imagine all of that internal space interacting with the outside world around us. Our gut is the major way that we interface with the environment that nourishes us. Through the foods that we eat, the environment we live in, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the pollutants that surround us – the gut microbiome is in contact with all of it. Within our gastrointestinal tract, the collective human gut microbiotia contains over 35,000 bacterial species including fungi and yeast, protozoans and archaea. The intestinal tract alone outnumbers human cells in our bodies by ten to one (some 100 trillion microorganisms). So, in reality, we are ten parts bugs and one part human (cells). Without all of these beneficial bugs, our interactions with the outside world would be much harsher, and we would be subject to almost every passing illness that came our way. This incredible microbial diversity is what is keeping us alive and resilient, and much of our time and attention should be paid to maintaining that diversity and overall balance.
Not only is the gut microbiome essential for our immune protection and digestion, it houses an entirely separate nervous system (the Enteric Nervous System), that operates completely independently from the central nervous system yet communicates directly with it. The enteric nervous system is extremely active, and 90% of the signals passing along our vagus nerve come from the enteric nervous system including most of our emotional (or “gut reaction”) communications. Not surprisingly, several of our mood hormones are manufactured in our gut (not the brain) including serotonin and dopamine, and our emotional health is dependent on our ability to manufacture these hormones daily. Disruption on the gut microbiota has been linked to mental health conditions, addiction behavior, and even anxiety and depression. This is a common occurrence when folks have been on several rounds of antibiotics over a short time. The antibiotics wipe out the beneficial gut organisms, leaving the body exposed to illness and depleting the immune system, and without proper re-population of the probiotics afterwards, it takes several months (and even years) to regain what was lost.
These carefully curated and symbiotic bacterias in our gut are essential in managing appropriate digestion, including absorbing and metabolizing nutrients in our foods, mediating our immune response to external pathogens, continually developing and repairing our immune system, and creating an intestinal barrier function and overall regulation from the external environment.
I often liken the human microbiome to garden soil (you can read more about that here). Basically, you want your garden soil to be rich in nutrients, full of beneficial critters like earthworms and bacterias, and you need lots of sunlight and good quality water to keep that soil fresh, hearty and teeming with life. Good soil is essential for good produce. Without all of these environmental inputs, you end up with anemic and nutrient devoid produce. The same can be said when nourishing your gut microbiota. You need diversity in your flora/bacteria (from exposure to lots of different environments and foods), you need perpetual high quality nutrients absorbed from your foods, uncontaminated water, and exposure to the outdoors (especially vitamin D from sunlight). Without all of these inputs, the body becomes weak, absorption of nutrients is compromised and we end up developing disease. This is a constant process, and something we should be thinking about every single day with the lifestyle choices that we make.
Here are some ways to tend to your gut microbiome on a daily basis to continually support your gut health:
- Eat fresh, nutrient rich, whole foods every day (the more colorful, the better!)
- Consume fermented foods daily including sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso, yogurt or kefir. Fermented foods have naturally occurring probiotics in them.
- Decrease your stress level. Cortisol (our stress hormone) is inflammatory to the gut over time. Decreasing stress = decreasing inflammation in the gut.
- Supplement with a good quality probiotic that has at least 10+ bacterial strains.
- Avoid foods that cause pain, discomfort, gas, bloating or irregular bowel movements.
- Drink filtered water every day. At least half your bodyweight (in ounces) is recommended.
If you’d like individualized recommendations and information about what therapeutics can be used to help your gut health and maintain a healthy microbiome, schedule an appointment with our Nutritionist & Clinical Herbalist, Lindsay Kluge, by contacting our front desk at (804) 977-2634 for a one-on-one consultation and custom care plan.