2014 saw the introduction of a new word into our vocabulary: microbiome. And I suspect that in 2015, as microbiome research continues to advance, we are going to hear even more about it.
If you don't already know, the human microbiome is the population of more than 100 trillion microorganisms that live in our gut, mouth, and skin. According to the company, Second Genome, "These microbial communities have numerous beneficial functions relevant to supporting life. They are needed to digest food, to prevent disease-causing bacteria from invading the body, and to synthesize essential nutrients and vitamins."
Without realizing it, we already know about part of the microbiome because it lives in our gut as good and bad bacteria. The good guys are there to support our immune system and help to detoxify the body as well as fend off bacteria, illness, and disease. The bad bacteria are what can wreak havoc when they get out of control causing inflammation, chronic illness, and who knows what else. (This is hopefully one of the many questions the microbiome researches will find answers for).
While I am fascinated by microbiome research and eagerly await their new findings and hopefully new ways to treat diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, it is important that we do all we can today to keep our gut bacteria (both good and bad) in a symbiotic relationship so our immune systems and health will flourish.
Below are 10 things you can do today to help improve and maintain your own microbiome:
1. Eat Whole Foods - Ditch the processed, packaged, and pre-made food. Instead, buy whole vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils, wild caught seafood, and pastured/grass-fed meats, dairy products, and eggs. When you eat whole, real food you know what you're getting - vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyphenols, protein, good fats, and complex carbohydrates.
2. Dump the Processed Foods - If you do step 1, then this step is easy. Processed foods, genetically modified foods, sugar, and factory-farmed meats and dairy products hurt or kill the good bacteria we're trying to help. These fake foods are what introduce irritants, allergens, carcinogens and inflammation into the body, potentially leading to a variety of illnesses and/or disease.
3. Reduce or Eliminate Sugar from your Diet - More and more studies are showing the detriments of sugar on the human body, especially unnatural sugars such as high fructose corn syrup. Sugar is highly addictive and promotes inflammation, diabetes, and insulin resistance, and possibly feeds cancer. If you follow steps 1 & 2, then eliminating sugar will be much easier.
4. Eat Your Probiotics - Yes, these good bacteria come in capsules and if you are taking an antibiotic, probiotic capsules are important to take as well (be sure to take them 2-3 hours after you take the antibiotic). But on a day-to-day basis, it is less expensive and tastier to eat your probiotics from foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented veggies, brined olives, kombucha, and kefir.
5. Learn How to Eat - yes, you read that right. Many of you eat on the go, in your car, or standing over the sink. The "right" way, or better way to eat is sitting down, where you can actually appreciate the food you are eating, chew your food (digestion begins in the mouth, so chewing your food well is essential to good digestion), and eat slowly, taking at least 20 minutes to eat a meal. If you can relax for at least 5-10 minutes after your meal, even better. This "slowing down" to eat gives your body and your brain time to register that you are eating as well as what you are eating. When you take time to eat and chew, you tend to eat less and feel more satisfied longer.
6. Eat a Good Breakfast - Your body will treat you best if you eat breakfast every day by 10:00 a.m. (And, no, coffee alone is not breakfast.) When you don't eat a quality breakfast, blood sugar slumps and you feel tired and cranky and it's when we turn to empty-calorie foods. Instead, start your morning with a bowl of whole (not instant) oatmeal topped with berries, nuts, and a drizzle of honey. Or try the Latin meal of brown rice topped with black beans and an egg. Even an apple with 1-2 Tablespoons of nut butter is a better breakfast than a donut or bagel.
7. Know When to Stop Eating - Eat your last meal or snack at least 2 hours before you intend to go to sleep. This gives your gut time to digest the food you've eaten so when bedtime arrives it's ready to rest, which will help you to sleep more soundly, which helps the body to repair and rejuvenate itself.
8. Stop Using Hand Sanitizers - These are not helping you stay healthy. Studies are showing that anti-bacterial hand soaps, cleansers, wipes, etc. are wiping out good bacteria and allowing germs to proliferate and become super-bugs. Coming into contact with day-to-day germs is what helps the immune system to build up natural defenses to the bad guys. This doesn't mean you shouldn't wash your hands after using the bathroom or sneezing, or before cooking or eating a meal, you should. But, use a gentler soap, such as Dr. Bronner's brand.
9. Nurture Your Mind-Body Spirit - Stress is all around us. And taking time for yourself is important for overall health and gut function. Spend at least 10 minutes (better yet, 30 minutes to an hour) every day on yourself. Let this be your time to simply sit quietly and uninterrupted with your eyes closed. Try yoga, tai chi, or qigong. You can always exercise as well.
10. Finally, Stop the Pop - Soda, That Is. There is simply no nutritional, gut, or microbial benefit in soda pop. It is full of sugar and the carbonation can be the cause of upset stomachs, bloating, and gas. Instead drink filtered water, green or herbal tea, or broth.
Elizabeth Roberts is a Natural Foods Chef, Certified Nutrition Consultant, and has been successfully living with IBD for 20+ years. www.eatlivelocally.com