Dietitian Angela Phillips explains what your microbiome is and how to keep your gut happy and healthy.
Microbiome is the term used when referring to all the different bugs that live in our guts. Not creepy-crawlies, but tiny micro-organisms. There are trillions of them in there! In fact, more than the number of cells we have in our body. These little guys are a hot topic, with research linking a healthy microbiome with lowering your risk of many different conditions including diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, and dementia.
Our microbiome are created as early as the womb. They help us to digest the food we consume, and as they do this, they produce goodies which help us to stay healthy. There is that age-old saying “We are what we eat” – but now we often hear “We are what our microbiome eat”, as they rely upon us to feed them and, in turn, they look after us and our health.
I’ve heard the microbiome described as being like an ecosystem. There are many different types of bacteria that, in an ideal scenario, are living in relative harmony – just like an ecosystem has many different plants and animals living in harmony. If one factor within an ecosystem is removed or overpopulates, the ecosystem can fail. Same goes with your microbiome. When this balance is not achieved, you may see symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating, abdominal pain, or increased risk of medical conditions.
In a fascinating study, when they transferred bacteria (in the form of faeces) from an obese mouse into a lean mouse, the lean mouse gains weight. Plus obese mice implanted with bacteria from a lean mouse will lose weight. Studies have shown that mice who have lost weight still maintain their “obese microbiome”, and this leads to weight regain. With weight regain being a common occurrence in humans! Imagine implanting using faeces to finally have an easy way to assist with weight management, and help prevent the yo-yo effect.
Prebiotics vs probiotics
Foods which feed your microbiome are called prebiotics. These are indigestible carbohydrates/fibres that reach your intestine which our bacteria use as fuel. Examples are garlic, onions, leek, barley, oats, apples, asparagus, and chickpeas, to name just a few. Foods, however, which contain good bacteria are called probiotics. These are fermented foods such as miso paste, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and yoghurt. You can easily buy these foods at the supermarket, but they are also very easy and much cheaper to make yourself at home. Jump online to watch some videos on how it’s done and you can see how quick, easy and cheap it can be. Ensure you follow good hygiene practices to keep nasty bugs out. You may like to start with small portions and build up.
The gut microbiome also enjoys snacking on polyphenols. These are found in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables but also extra virgin olive oil, dark chocolate, and red wine. As always in moderation! So keep those bright salads and soups going over winter. Probiotics can also be found in pill form, and there is growing evidence these can be quite useful in relieving symptoms of gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, and loose bowels. Recommendations are to take them for at least a month to notice any benefits. This is not cheap, so you may like to explore diet changes you can make before making the purchase, or if you can afford it, you could do both at once. Everyone has a different experience with pro- and prebiotic foods. So if you are interested, have a play around to see which suit you.
Tips for a healthy microbiome
• Breastfeeding provides probiotics for babies.
• Eat plenty of fibre.
• Avoid processed foods.
• Try fermented foods.
• Avoid unnecessary oral antibiotics.
• Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, aiming for all colours.
• Try probiotic capsules to see if they provide any benefit.
Things that can impair your microbiome
Antibiotics: While antibiotics kill nasty bugs in your body, they can also do damage to the helpful bugs in your microbiome. Sometimes when the good ones are killed, it allows some of the not-so-helpful ones, such as C-diff, to take over causing diarrhoea. There’s good evidence to support using probiotics while taking an antibiotic. This helps to replenish the good ones and to keep the microbiome in balance.
Poor nutrition: As mentioned, fibre helps to feed your microbiome, so make sure you give them plenty of food to keep them going.
Other medications: Unfortunately, it’s not just antibiotics that can have a negative impact on your microbiome.
Poo in a pill
There is even evidence that faecal transplants may be a solution to many digestive issues. That means taking faecal matter from someone with healthy digestion and giving it to someone else. It is a practice already used in New Zealand for specific medical conditions, so watch this space.
Keeping your microbiome happy
The foods recommended to keep your microbiome happy are also linked with reducing your risk of many medical conditions, so look for ways to boost your fibre, fruit and vegetable intake. Here’s some ideas to get you going:
• Make your own soups (add legumes) .
• Add half a bag of chopped spinach (or use frozen) to meals, eg mince meals, lasagne, curry.
• Put vegetables in your toasted sandwich eg tomatoes, onion, mushrooms, spinach, and use grainy bread.
• If baking, choose recipes with oats, nuts, and seeds.
• Sprinkle nuts and seeds on salads, pizza, and stir fries.
• Make colourful salads (my current favourite is coleslaw).
Angela Phillips is a dietitian specialising in paediatrics, food intolerances, and weight management. Her practice, FoodSavvy (foodsavvy.co.nz) is based in Wellington and Nelson.