Microbiome is a term trending strong in the health community. I recently wrote about the microbiome, and gut microbes and its direct relationship to allergy risk. To be clear, our largest collection of microbes lives in our gut (10 to 100 trillion organisms). We now know that the types of organisms, the variety and the delicate balance of these bacteria impact our health in a positive or negative way. A properly functioning gastrointestinal microbiome is your key to optimal health.
Gut microbes’ primer
In this case variety is the spice of life. The more diverse the species of microbes in your gut, the better supported your immune system and over health is. The more diverse the microbe communities are, the less susceptible the gut microbiome is to stress and stressors. We do know that if you were born by vaginal delivery, then you were “bathed in your mother’s vaginal microbiome,” and that can reduce your risk of certain health conditions. There is even a movement now to have babies born by C-section be exposed via some method to their mother’s vaginal canal fluids. Breastfeeding also supports a healthier diverse microbiome in the baby. Exposure to antibiotics and other environmental stressors (think pollen, fumes from cleaning fluids, pesticides) early in life can also change a child’s gut microbiome. Prebiotics and probiotics help to support the balance of gut microbiota.
Understanding symbiosis and dysbiosisWhen it comes to the gut microbiome, numbers, composition and diversity are all important. The more diverse the population, the healthier the microbiome is. High diversity supports strong immunity and resistance to “external stressors.” ** Balance and stability of a healthy gut microbiome means better well-being for its host organism (you). This state of intestinal homeostasis, which supports a healthy immune system, and which also supports a healthy metabolism is called symbiosis**. As mentioned previously, being born by C-section, not being breastfed, being given antibiotics early in life, eating a poor quality diet as a very young child, can all upset the microbe balance early in life. This state of the gut microbiome is called** dysbiosis (a dysregulated microbiome)** and it can result in a greater risk of developing autoimmune disorders like eczema, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, intestinal diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, necrotizing enterocolitis, and even colon and gastric cancer. Dysbiosis is also linked to non-gastrointestinal diseases like anxiety, arthritis, asthma, depression, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cardiovascular diseases, and oxalic kidney stones, as well as other conditions.
From a metabolic perspective, dysbiosis is believed to be directly linked to metabolic syndrome,** obesity** and** diabetes.** Recent studies show that bariatric surgery changes the microbiome quite quickly after the operation, which is why diabetes may quickly go into remission, in the presence of little weight loss. It was also found in a randomized trial, that when patients who undergo a Roux-en-Y procedure are given probiotics, they also lose weight more efficiently.
Specific gut microbes and how they impact obesity
There are certain gut microbes we want to see in abundance. There are also a large number of microbes or phyla that are present in a healthy gut in quite small numbers. The more abundant phyla are typically actinobacteria, bacteroidetes, firmicutes and proteobacteria. To reiterate, the delicate balance can be affected by diet, age, stress, antibiotic use, support (or lack of support) by prebiotics and probiotics. Experts in this field of medicine want us to understand that taking an antibiotic is like the napalm going off in our gut. Yes, very often we need antibiotics to fight a disease process, but we have to address the impact they have on the healthy balance of bacteria in our stomach and intestine.
When there are more firmicutes than bacteroidetes, this can help to induce obesity. A number of mice studies support this finding. Having more firmicutes seems to make the mice process calories more efficiently and that means they easily gain weight. What encourages diminished levels of the firmicutes? From a dietary perspective, prebiotics, probiotics, an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean-style diet (the opposite of the current Western Diet), avoiding trans fats, sugars (of all kinds) and avoiding artificial sweeteners, which also alter microbiome balance (causing insulin resistance), can help to support lower levels of firmicutes. Avoiding antibiotics and drugs like PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), NSAIDs, and opioids can also help to limit microbiome imbalance.
If you go gluten-free or use the FODMAP diet outline for IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), you run the risk of causing an increase of a microbiome imbalance because these diets limit the bacteroidetes levels (which can increase risk of obesity). Experts recommend use of a probiotic along with use of these diets to maintain the delicate balance. It should be clear that if you don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you may be actually escalating your risk of obesity by choosing to follow a gluten-free diet. There is also ongoing discussion about the impact of genetically modified foods, the pesticide (Round UP), and antibiotic exposure from foods (dairy, meat) and risk of microbiome disruption and metabolic syndrome, obesity and other health issues.
Best practices to support a healthy microbiome and limit obesity and metabolic syndrome
- Maintaining a healthy body weight and remaining physically active help to support a healthy microbiome and are the two most important things you can do to maintain a healthy gut and strong immune system.
- Avoid trans fats, sugar, artificial sweeteners, highly processed and refined foods.
- Do eat a diet that follows the Mediterranean style of eating, and emphasizeanti-inflammatory foods.
- Meet your fiber goals daily.
- Eat prebiotic and probiotic foods.
- Take probiotics if you do take medications like antibiotics, PPIs, opioids, NSAIDs.
- If you do commit to taking a probiotic, check out ConsumerLab review of probiotics.
- If you have gastric bypass surgery, talk to your health team about the use of probiotics.
Remember that probiotics are not a magic pill. It takes a program of diet, exercise, avoiding stressors, limiting medications and making other choices that support a balanced microbiome. At stake is a healthy immune system and avoiding a host of diseases including obesity.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”