You may think you’re simply you. But, there’s so much more to you than meets the eye. You’re a collection of ecosystems that breed communities of microorganisms throughout your skin, mouth, gut, and other parts of your body, collectively referred to as your “microbiome.” In the same way your fingerprints are uniquely yours, so is your microbial signature. No two microbiomes are the same. Even the microbes on your left hand significantly differ from your right hand. The collection of bacteria inhabiting your body is a product of your life experiences, food choices, and your unique lifestyle.
While the whole concept of sharing your space with microbes may feel a bit creepy, it’s really something to be celebrated. After all, you can’t live without many of them. Countless microscopic beings ensure the healthy functioning of various processes in your body by quelling inflammation, regulating the immune system, metabolizing excess cholesterol, and performing other necessary functions to keep you alive and well.
A Good Gut Feeling
Within your microbiome live 100 trillion bacteria — the bulk of which reside in the gut. While the amount of bacteria far outnumbers your 50 to 100 trillion cells, most of them are beneficial bacteria, also known as “probiotics.” Like a complex ecosystem, your gut microbiome is similarly vulnerable to disease because of many factors, including the heavily processed standard American diet (SAD), which delivers massive amounts of sugar, chemical additives, preservatives, and harmful oils to the gut. In addition to harmful ingredients in our diets, the gut microbiome also lacks the quantity and diversity of probiotics found in the diets of our ancestors, who regularly incorporated fermented foods into their daily regimens. When it comes to your microbiome, the adage “you are what you eat” couldn’t be more true. The key to maintaining a healthy gut microbiome lies in decreasing inflammatory and disease-causing bacteria, while eating fermented foods that increase the numbers of beneficial probiotic bacteria.
The Pros of Probiotics
The probiotics in your gut perform a wide variety of functions, depending on the strain. According to research published in the medical journal Internal and Emergency Medicine, some probiotics help you maintain a healthy weight. Research published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that certain probiotics kill harmful infections, even ones that reside in other parts of the body, such as the lungs. Still other probiotics in the gut have been found in the International Archives of Allergy and Immunology to prevent or reduce allergic reactions.
Superbugs have quickly learned to outsmart antibiotics and become resistant to them. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 70 percent of all bacterial infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one of the antibiotics used to treat them. But, there’s a plot twist in this war against superbugs: Beneficial bacteria have emerged in the form of the nearly forgotten fermented foods of our ancestors. While the research is still in its infancy, a growing body of studies points to probiotics as potentially effective against drug-resistant infections, such as Heliobacter pylori (linked to ulcers and other conditions) and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a frequently life-threatening infection often linked to hospital stays. In contrast to antibiotics, which only attempt to kill harmful bacterial infections in one way, probiotics — such as those found in fermented foods — have been found to fight MRSA infections in three ways: 1) competing with the infectious bacteria for nutrients; 2) secreting bacteria-killing bacteriocins; and 3) preventing infectious bacteria from producing a protective coating, known as a “biofilm.”
Bacteriocins are proteins produced by bacteria to inhibit or kill other types of bacteria. Insufficient nutrients in a particular space appear to be the primary condition that cause bacteria to secrete bacteriocins, as a strategy to maintain their own numbers while decreasing competition with other bacteria in shared environments. In other words, probiotic bacteriocins function as a natural bacterial immune system weapon. Biofilms, on the other hand, comprise one or more types of microorganisms — bacteria, fungi, and protists — and coat various surfaces of the body. The presence of biofilm is usually a factor in infections that are difficult to eradicate. If you’ve ever experienced a urinary tract infection or other infection that has been hard to eliminate, you’ve probably already experienced biofilms at work.
Possible Signs of Poor Gut Health
- Poor skin conditions
- Insomnia or other sleep disorders
- Food intolerances
- Autoimmune conditions
- Weight changes
How Your Diet and Lifestyle Affect Gut Health
A small Harvard University study published in the journal Nature found that diet rapidly alters the gut microbiome. The scientists found that even what we eat in the short term can have drastic effects on both the types and numbers of microbes in the gut, as well as their capacity to increase inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. That’s an important finding considering that an increasing amount of research links inflammation to a variety of afflictions: fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and a multitude of other health concerns.
Frequently, inflammation in the body can be traced back to the gut. Research in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology shows that aging is linked to marked reductions of several important probiotic genuses, especially Bifidobacteria and Bacteroides. A reduction in these beneficial bacteria can set the stage for improper immune sensing by tissues in the gut known as gut-associated lymphoid tissue. This can lead to increased inflammation and intestinal permeability. When this happens, the body responds by increasing the production of various inflammatory proteins that keep the gut inflamed, and also spread inflammation throughout the body. So, it’s possible that the aches and pains in joints nowhere near your gut have a direct correlation to your gut health, or lack thereof.
Other Causes of Poor Gut Health:
It might seem fairly obvious that a high-sugar diet would feed the harmful, disease-causing microbes that reside in your gut, but it may surprise you to learn that other diet and lifestyle factors may also affect the health of your gut.
- Antibiotic- and synthetic-hormone-containing foods found in meat or dairy products
- Alcohol consumption
- Chlorinated water
- A nutritionally deficient diet
- Underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, hypothyroid function, inadequate hydrochloric acid production by the stomach, and chronic stress
- Drugs such as antacids, antibiotics, birth control pills, immunosuppressant drugs, or recreational drugs
- Other lifestyle factors, such as blood sugar imbalances, mercury-containing dental amalgams, or toxic exposures
- Weakened immunity
Micromanaging Your Microbes
Though multiple factors contribute to a reduction of healthy gut bacteria, there are plenty of ways to improve your gut health. The best way to diversify your beneficial bacteria is to eat more fermented foods, such as kombucha, pickles, and sauerkraut. Most store-bought pickles won’t boost your gut health, as they’re created through shortcut techniques, including kimchi brining and pasteurization, which save time and money on the part of commercial manufacturers. While there may be nothing wrong with these food choices overall, they simply don’t offer any live probiotic cultures to boost your gut’s bacterial diversity. Instead, choose ones that are made through old-fashioned techniques of fermentation in a brine — a saltwater solution — and that are also unpasteurized and kept in the refrigerator section of your health food or grocery store.
Sorry, yogurt lovers: Although yogurt can help boost the overall numbers of beneficial bacteria, it isn’t great at improving the diversity of microbes since most store-bought yogurts contain only a few strains of probiotics, if they contain any live cultures at all. If you choose to buy yogurt, avoid sweetened varieties because the sugar will also feed harmful bacteria that may already be overgrown.
Fermenting Live Probiotics
Though various probiotic-rich kimchi, kombucha, pickle, and sauerkraut options are available in stores, creating your own fermentations will ensure that your foods contain live probiotics. It’s easier than you think, and worth the effort to learn the new skill. Once you’ve learned the basics, they can be applied to a wide range of ferments to create an endless number of delicious and health-boosting cultured foods. Your taste buds and gut will thank you for it.
Many types of fermentation techniques exist, each one with its own processes involved, but here’s a general overview of what happens during the fermentation process: Microorganisms, largely bacteria and some yeasts, feed on sugars and starches in the food, thereby converting them into lactic acid. This process is sometimes referred to as lacto-fermentation. You’ve probably heard of prebiotics, which are actually just the sugars and starches that act as food for beneficial microbes. Lacto-fermentation is one of the most healthful forms of fermentation because of the many lactic acid bacteria formed during the process.
Lactic acid isn’t the only chemical formed during the fermentation process, however; gases, ethanol and hydrogen peroxide, among other acids and compounds, are also formed. There are various precursors to other compounds that form at different stages of the process, resulting in an increase in probiotics, enzymes, vitamins, and more active forms of critical nutrients.
Of course, be sure to use clean implements, vessels, hands, and surfaces for any of the fermented foods you make. You might feel better knowing that, provided you follow instructions for the recipes you select, you won’t need to worry about “doing it wrong.” That’s because scientists have explored the ability of naturally occurring bacteria to form during the fermentation process. They found that within only 2 to 3 days of the culturing process, harmful bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, which had been injected into the test vessels, were not detectable in the vegetable ferment. The naturally present probiotics Lactobacillus plantarum or L. mesenteroides in the fermentation fought off E. coli until it was no longer present in the sauerkraut. Although this study shows the benefits of fermentation for food preservation, it may also demonstrate the potential for probiotic-rich vegetable pickles and sauerkraut to kill pathogenic infections. Of course, you’ll still want to take care, but it’s good to know that the “good bugs” have your back— or your gut — so to speak.
Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook, Ph.D., DNM, is an international best-selling and 20-time book author whose works include The Cultured Cook: Delicious Fermented Foods with Probiotics to Knock Out Inflammation, Boost Gut Health, Lose Weight & Extend Your Life and The Probiotic Promise: Simple Steps to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out. Learn more at www.FoodHouseProject.com and www.DrMichelleCook.com.