The "Think Outside the Box!" health series is brought to you the first three Thursdays of every month--with a new theme each month. September's Theme: Nurturing Our Microbiome. Get the most out of this educational series by interacting with the challenges and questions on Facebook and Twitter.
Do you remember from last week's post that microbes make up 90% of our cells and the balance of our one hundred trillion microbes is foundational to our health? I left you hanging last week with the "why" our critters are important. Let's tackle the "how" you can build a healthy micro-flora in order to optimize your health. Here are 8 simple ways to shift your microbiome and keep your gut flora on track:
1. Limit Processed Foods and Eat More Real Foods
The foods that we know are required to feed a healthy microbiome are no longer common in the average American diet. Unfortunately, the foods that are harmful to our flora are quite popular. Topping the list of friendly-microbe-killers are processed foods, genetically modified organisms, sugar (especially high-fructose corn syrup), and wheat.
Plant-heavy diets are especially helpful for improving your microbial diversity, so hit the produce aisle hard and frequently. Plants give your microbes something to chew on, to break down, to digest, and extract nutrients from. You are literally feeding the good little critters what they love and need to survive.
2. Avoid/Limit Antibiotic Use
Antibiotic and antifungal treatments can wreak havoc on our micro-flora. Antibiotics kill bacteria but they can’t distinguish between the good bacteria and the problematic bacteria. While we may eliminate a certain bacteria that is causing an acute condition, we simultaneously wipe out our necessary, beneficial micro-flora, setting our bodies off balance.
Strive to keep your micro-flora balanced by taking as few courses of antibiotics as possible. If you or your kiddo have had multiple courses of antibiotics, it is likely that a microbial imbalance exists and your (or your child’s) intestinal micro-flora needs some TLC.
3. Probiotic Supplementation
If you have to take an antibiotic, most definitely take probiotics to balance the impact. Not on antibiotics? Take probiotics anyway. Doing so will help keep your microbiome full of live, beneficial organisms which will help keep digestion, immunity, and overall health on track.
Look for probiotics that deliver twenty to fifty billion live organisms per dose and contain a combination of different strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Keep in mind that supplementation is exactly that, supplementation. It is no substitution for healthy eating.
4. Consume Fermented Foods
Consuming naturally fermented foods is one of the best ways to optimize your microbiome and digestive health. These fermented goodies like sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, yogurt, kombucha, miso, tempeh, kefir, and pickled veggies encourage the growth of good bacteria. When purchasing these products ensure that the packaging denotes “live cultures” and look for bacteria strains on the label. Fermented foods will be refrigerated. Also, look for sugar content in your fermented choices. Flavored yogurts and kefirs are known for sugar overload, which can negate the benefits of the probiotics. Find options that are plain—and unsweetened.
5. Bring The Great Outdoors In
One of the best and potentially most pleasurable ways to increase our microbial exposure is to simply open the windows and let the microbes flow! Welcome them into your home, your car, your office—the more, the merrier, and the better for our microbiome. Next, get outside and get your hands dirty. Do some gardening, plant some flowers, mow your lawn, or do any activity that will connect you and your immune system with the trillions of microbes in the soil. There are new studies showing that fruits and vegetables grown in soil with diverse microbes actually pass that variety on to us—and help support our health. Loving on pets is another great way to be exposed to healthy bacteria.
6. Wash Hands with Ordinary Soap and Water
Using antibacterial soaps and sanitizers will kill skin micro-flora, which we need to build our intestinal flora. I’m not saying stop washing your hands. Instead, wash with soap that is not antibacterial. According to the Centers for Disease Control and backed by a wealth of research, washing hands with ordinary soap and water sufficiently removes harmful germs.
7. Focus on Mama’s Flora
Childbirth and breastfeeding set the stage for what organisms are going to inhabit a person’s body. Therefore, if you’re a mother-to-be, it’s important that you optimize your own micro-flora as you will be passing it along to your child. The intestinal flora of a newborn gets established through the birthing process. When a baby is delivered naturally she gets colonized by collecting bacteria and other microbes from the vaginal canal. When a baby is delivered via C-section, she is colonized by human skin when held as well as opportunistic bacteria in the operating room. The microorganisms that colonize a baby through the birth canal are very different than the microorganisms from skin; the latter being less balanced and suited to the needs of our immune system and gastrointestinal health. In addition, breastfed babies receive microbes from their mother’s milk, which nurtures early microbial colonization of their gut.
If you had a C-section or were unable to breastfeed, don’t beat yourself up. Simply be aware that your child’s gut flora may need a little extra attention. My middle son had a poor start to gut health from birth. I was on antibiotics for a respiratory infection for five days surrounding his birth. This impacted the microbes that I passed to him through the birth canal and my breast milk. It wasn’t until he was nearly two years old that we discovered that his sleep, emotional, and behavioral disturbances were caused by a yeast overgrowth in his gut. The connection is clear to me—I didn’t pass him a stellar, balanced microbiome and I didn’t help him build one. He lived compromised and uncomfortable until I learned how to support his intestinal health. Colic, reflux, reoccurring ear infections or excessive spiting up can often be signs of a microbial imbalance. Consider seeking the guidance of a naturopath or medical doctor familiar with the microbiome for support in building an infant’s healthy gut flora. Good news! There are probiotics designed for infants and many strategies to support infant gut health.
8. Prioritize Stress Management
Stress is such a huge contributor to microbial imbalances I am dedicating a whole post to this topic next week. So, stay tuned—with eager anticipation!
Weekly challenge: Start implementing 1-2 microbiome boosting tips this week.
Let’s chat on social: What things do you do to nurture your gut health? Or, what do you plan to try?
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.