The efficiency and the effectiveness of our system of digestion in the gut is dependent on the gut microbiome. This term “gut microbiome” refers to the microorganisms that live within the digestive tract. In fact, this is not the only place that has a microbiome in the body as we also have microbiota in the oral and vaginal mucosa, the respiratory tract, urinary tract, uterus as well as in our skin. Due to the gut-brain access, the link between the health of the gut and therefore the health of the brain, there is potential for microbiota in the brain as well. The microbiome is a diverse collection of not only bacteria, but also fungi, viruses, protozoa and archaea that coexist and live in our body with the gastrointestinal tract being the key driver that affects health overall.
It is impossible to know exactly the number of organisms living in a healthy, as well as unhealthy microbiota of a person, but it is estimated to be approximately 39 trillion cells with the human body having approximately 30 trillion cells. The relationship between human and microbial cells coexisting is approximately 1:1 ratio of microbial cells to human body cells. These cells coexist in a symbiotic relationship with the microorganisms helping with metabolic functions such as stimulating the immune system, protecting against pathogens and breaking down toxic food metabolites to name a few. In turn these microorganisms are fed with nutrients and the environment needed to survive by the human cells.
“The single greatest predictor of a healthy gut microbiome is the diversity of plants in one’s diet.” Dr Will Bulsiewicz, Gastroenterologist
Each person has a unique complex microbiome. Breast milk and the microbiota present in the vaginal canal of the mother both impact the early formation of the microbiota, which over the course of an individual’s life will change depending on diet, lifestyle and environmental factors.
The health of the microbiome dictates our overall health, pretty much. DNA does play some part in the microbiome, the health of which is impacted in the first year of life, but how we treat our digestive system through what we eat, how we eat and when we eat are perhaps even more important as we can impact out health through simple, everyday choices and actions, such as what we choose to eat, whether we chew our food well before swallowing and whether we allow time for adequate digestion of each meal before eating again or going to bed.
The microbiota in the gut is the most diverse part of the body and includes mainly anaerobic bacteria predominantly belonging to the Bacteroides, Bifidobacterium, Clostridium, Eubacterium, Lactobacillus and Streptococcus genera. Other agents that can alter the microbiota are biofilms. Biofilms are complex structures or aggregates of microorganisms that attach to internal surfaces.
When a healthy microbiota is altered through the effects of toxins, infections, stress, antibiotics and diet this gives rise to dysbiosis. Dysbiosis leads to inflammation and inflammation then leads to some form of dis-ease, including type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), allergies and intolerances as well as more chronic conditions such as auto immune disorders. Importantly, this can happen in any part of the body including gut dysbiosis, vaginal dysbiosis, endometrial dysbiosis, or dysbiosis in the respiratory tract.
Bacterial biofilms are a serious health concern because of their ability to tolerate antibiotics, contributing to chronic unresolved infections as well as the development of disease and inflammatory processes. Always recommended when taking a course of antibiotics that you take probiotics either at the same time or directly after finishing the course, as antibiotics not only kill the pathogens, but healthy bacteria as well.
Tips for maintaining a healthy microbiome:
Eat the rainbow
Probably not the first time you are hearing this phrase. Why the rainbow? – If you are eating all different colours of fruit and vegetables you are likely including all vitamins and minerals that you need, as well as getting plenty of dietary fibre. Perhaps most importantly many fruits and vegetables help keep the intestinal environment alkaline. Too much acid in your diet leads to inflammation and conditions such as gout, arthritis and candida. The government recommends 5-a-day, however, in my opinion, five varieties is minimum better to have 15-20 varieties through the day including fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices.
Eat bitter foods at every meal
Ever thought why Continental Europeans generally eat salad before the main meal? Because it stimulates digestion. Bitter foods are very effective at preparing the digestive system to produce stomach acids in readiness for the meal to follow. In general, bitter foods also provide dietary fibre that bulks up the stool making it easier to expel from the body while alleviating constipation and diahorrea. Foods such as endive, roquet, watercress, radicchio, dandelion, bitter melon, artichoke and chard are all classed as bitter foods.
Drink plenty of fluids
The body is composed of approximately 70-75% water and the brain 75-80% fluid. Water is used in the respiratory system, in the blood, cellular activities such as removing waste from the cell and then from the body through lymphatic drainage, via the liver and kidneys and out of the body through urination and the stool. Digestion requires water also and for normal brain functioning. Ideally fluid intake to be either water or herbal teas. Be aware that caffeine-based drinks dehydrate the body as well as making the gut environment acidic when drunk in large quantities.
Intermittent fasting or time-based eating
Intermittent fasting and time-based eating are essentially the same thing. It means limiting your eating window to allow the gut and the digestive system time to rest and digest effectively. Constant snacking harms the gut effectiveness as well as the microbiome health. Eating can be within an 8-hour period, 10 or 12-hour period depending on what suits your lifestyle. Regular fasting is known to improve absorption of vitamins and minerals from foods, increase energy and improve sleep. Be sure to finish eating, irrelevant of regime a minimum of two hours before going to bed. For those who really want to reset the clock, try fasting for 24 hours. Drink plenty of liquid during this time. If you have any chronic condition always consult a specialist before fasting for 24 hours or longer.
Eat fermented foods on a regular basis
Fermented foods include Natto (a Japanese food made from fermented soy), Kimchi, Kefir, and Kombucha. All these foods use sugar to stimulate the fermentation process, but avoid foods that have additional sugar, for example in flavourings. You don't need much on a daily basis to help the gut microbiome stay diverse and healthy.
When taking antibiotics, taking a course of probiotics will help restore the microbiome. Use a brand that has a wide range of strains in the probiotic including Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. If you know you suffer from SIBO (short intestinal bacterial overgrowth), it is advisable to work with a practitioner to advise accordingly. If you are not aware of having SIBO but find that the probiotics make you feel bloated and gassy stop taking them and seek advice.
Add herbs to your foods
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Most of us will actively weed out this wonderful herb from spaces where it is not wanted. Dandelion leaves and the root are rich in inulin which is also a prebiotic polysaccharide. It feeds and re-balances good gut bacteria having a positive impact on the microbiome by increasing the number of beneficial bacteria including Bifidobacteria spp. Inulin within dandelion also helps stabilise blood sugar levels, which makes it very helpful for people who are pre-diabetic or diabetic. Dandelion leaves can be added to salads, smoothies and soups, stirring in at the last minute so as not to destroy the beneficial aspects of the leaves. Dandelion is also considered as a liver herb and may be used in detoxification of the body as well as to improve bile flow, aiding in fat absorption.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Garlic, a wonderful herb found in most households is used to enhance the flavour of stews, casseroles, sauces and roasts. It can also be eaten raw, added to smoothies and salad dressings or soaked in honey or olive oil to flavour the liquid. Garlic is a natural antibacterial and antifungal herb while also providing strong immune support, as well as being another prebiotic food. The prebiotic component of garlic is not destroyed by stomach acid used in digestion. Garlic increases beneficial bacteria in the gut including Lactobacillus acidophilus. As an antibacterial, it has the added benefit of reducing harmful bacteria in the small intestine and therefore is useful in addressing small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). As an antifungal is works well in addressing candida and the dysbiosis candida can cause.
For those who might have a sensitivity to the allicin found in garlic, onions and leeks it should be used with caution as it can upset the stomach in some individuals. Those suffering from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), I might recommend that you avoid garlic as the constituents of garlic might irritate this condition.
Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)
This incredible looking prehistoric plant is part of the Thistle (Asteraceae) family and has many beneficial properties, especially related to digestion. Artichoke is a bitter, digestive herb that can stimulate healthy digestion when taken before a meal as an extract. It is rich in fibre, vitamins, especially vitamin C and folate, minerals such as magnesium, phosphorous and potassium, as well as antioxidants. Artichoke also contains protein if you prefer a plant-based diet this can be a good source of protein. The fibre helps maintain a healthy digestive system, as it contains inulin, making it a prebiotic herb that promotes good bacteria as well as helping keep you regular by bulking up the stool and alleviating constipation and diahorrea.
Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva)
Slippery Elm is a rich mucilaginous herb that becomes gelatinous when mixed with water. It is a demulcent herb that has an emollient and healing effect when in the gut, soothing any inflamed mucous membranes while helping to lessen bloating and gas as it helps to heal the cause. As a prebiotic herb it increases the number of good gut bacteria including Bacteroides spp. Bifidobacterium spp. and Lactobacillus spp. helping to rebalance gut bacteria.
Remember everyone is unique and what works for one person may not be as effective for another. Seek advice if you find that you are not seeing the results you would want to see after applying some of these suggestions.
A healthy gut is the gateway to a healthy body and mind.” – Dr. Mark Hyman, Physician and author
Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, Andrew Chevallier, FNIMH
The Complete Herbal Tutor, Anne McIntrye