The bacteria that live within us, mostly in the gut (aka our gut microbiome), are the cornerstone of wellness for both body and mind, which is why I always encourage patients to ‘start with the gut.’ As they start to nourish the gut by ditching less-than-stellar dietary and lifestyle habits that mess with good function, patients are often amazed at how quickly their physical and emotional ills begin to lift.
So what derails your microbiome? It’s the daily pile-on of ingested assaults. What are a few of the most common offenders? Sugar, processed and chemicalized foods, frequent use of antibiotics, antacids and PPIs (like Nexium, Pepcid, etc.) and the ‘NSAID’ non-steroidal anti-inflammatory meds (like Advil, Aleve, etc.)
When your microbiome is healthy and the gut ecosystem is balanced, the 100 trillion mostly friendly bacteria that live in the gut go about their business, aiding digestion, boosting immunity, keeping the metabolism on track, manufacturing key nutrients, limiting the growth of unhealthy yeast and bacteria, consuming “bad” bacteria, and so on. But, when you abuse the microbiome with troublemakers, the ecosystem gets imbalanced and the “bad” bacteria can easily overwhelm the good.
That bacterial imbalance triggers increased gut permeability, aka ‘leaky’ gut, which in turn sets off digestive ills and system-wide inflammation — and can negatively impact mood, driving anxiety, depression, brain fog, and mood swings. So, it’s easy to see why it’s so important to treat this delicate ecosystem with care and feed your good gut bacteria well, every day. Here’s how to do it.
1. Get rid of gut-destroying habits.
Start with ditching sugar and processed foods which feed the bad bacteria and starve the good, and upset the delicate gut ecosystem. Many drugs affect the gut negatively, so keep antibiotic, antacid, and anti-inflammatory use to an absolute minimum. And remember, eat organic and/or from a good farmer’s market whenever possible. The industrially-farmed stuff you buy in the supermarket has been dosed with pesticides that can harm your good bugs, most notoriously glyphosate, which is actually registered as an antibiotic! And, while you’re at it, invest in a good water filter that can remove some of the chemicals in your tap water than can harm your bacteria.
2. Let your good bacteria feast on their favorite foods.
The good bacteria in your gut like the same nutrient-rich foods that the rest of you does: for instance, non-starchy veggies like broccoli and asparagus, berries, nuts, seeds, and some legumes. But it’s actually the fiber in these foods that the human system can’t digest, that passes through the small intestine into the colon where the bacteria who live there break it down and consume it by fermenting it. The byproducts of that fermentation help repair and replenish the cells that line the gut, keeping it leak-free, stopping inflammation in its tracks. A diverse array of health-building foods encourages a robust microbiome that is one of your strongest defenses against infection and disease. Some of these “prebiotic” foods are rich in the soluble fibers that the friendly bacteria like to feast on, some, like the stems and stalks of vegetables, are richer in insoluble fiber — ‘roughage’ is the old-fashioned word — that promotes regularity. And a regular bathroom routine is how the body sheds itself of the bacteria it doesn’t want.
3. Slip in extra fiber at every opportunity.
Leafy greens, be they raw, steamed, or tucked into morning smoothies, are a not-to-be missed fiber bonanza, so indulge frequently. Another easy way to boost fiber content at every meal is to top your eggs, soups, salads, and stews with one to two tablespoons of psyllium seeds, flaxseeds, or soaked chia seeds. You can enjoy as is, or for a more powdery consistency and to ensure freshness, grind them in a clean coffee or spice grinder, and sprinkle liberally!
4. Embrace fermented foods.
There is another way your diet can put the good bacteria to work in you and for you. Whereas the prebiotic fiber you eat feeds the bacteria that are already living in your colon, you can, and should, eat fermented foods which bring bacteria from the outside world into your system. Live strains of bacteria in yogurt or sauerkraut are fermenting the sugars in those foods the same way that your resident bacteria are making a meal of the fiber you eat. Biologists are only just beginning to unravel the science here, but humankind has enjoyed fermented vegetables, fruits, and dairy for centuries, taking advantage of their resistance to spoilage and their sharp, tangy flavors.
So to fortify your gut, add small servings of fermented foods to your plate once or twice a day.
To do fermented foods right, start with the classics — and make sure they’re made with fresh, organic, non-GMO ingredients for maximum benefit. A few of the tasty, fermented (not pasteurized!) options to pick up on your next visit to the market (or, better yet, make yourself) include:
- Fermented beets, radishes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, kimchi, green beans, and sauerkraut
- Homemade fermented condiments, such as ketchup, relish, salsa, chutney, and hot sauce
- For dairy-eaters, fermented yogurts, kefir, cultured buttermilk, and some cheeses, like sheep or goat’s milk feta
- Non-dairy options: coconut milk yogurt, olives, fermented pickles
- Natto, miso, tempeh, tofu, and soy sauce (but keep portions on the smaller side, as all are heavily processed)
5. Practice relaxing good gut behaviors.
Stress can lead to bacterial overgrowth, leaky gut, and inflammation, so practicing mindfulness and other stress-reduction techniques can also help keep your gut on an even keel. For some time, psychiatrists have been aware of, and usually mystified by, the fact that gut problems and emotional disorders often go hand in hand. Now, researchers are beginning to get a handle on healing the mind by taming the gut which, after all, produces more of the mood-regulating chemicals (“neurotransmitters”) than your brain does!
6. Send your gut to bed.
Recent research has shown that as little as two nights of impaired sleep can change the composition of your gut bacteria, upsetting the ecosystem and tilting the balance toward the “bad” guys. This disruption of a healthy microbiome likely accounts for at least some of the ill effects that we’ve all experienced when we push ourselves without enough sleep, like weight gain and higher stress levels.
7. Exercise the gut blues away.
Regular exercise is a great way to stay regular. And — this won’t surprise you by now — it supports the good bacteria in your colon at the expense of the bad. In one recent study, many participants who took part in a six-week program of moderate exercise saw an increase in the bugs which produce the compounds that support the health of the gut wall.
8. Pop a pill — a healthy one, that is.
Daily probiotic supplements can help the microbiome do all the things it needs to do for us, from strengthening the immune system to safeguarding our mood. Since the beneficial bacteria you take in this way — be it through supplements or food — may not take up permanent residence in the gut, regularly replenishing your supply is a good idea.
Though probiotics are generally well-tolerated, check with your doc first to make sure there are no contraindications with any prescription medications you may be taking. Then, with that all-clear, buy the best supplement possible, and keep the following in mind:
- Choose a broad-spectrum probiotic that contains a variety of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria strains. (For example, the Be Well Probiotics contain the five most viable and stable strains.)
- Take as directed, usually once or twice a day, preferably with meals.
- Handle your probiotics with care, as some need to be refrigerated and some don’t, so follow the manufacturer’s handling instructions.
- Check the expiration date to ensure the contents are still active and ready to support your gut!