Nurture Your Microbiome

Have you thought about your microbiome lately?

Oh, you don’t know what it is? You’re not alone. Which is ironic given the importance of your microbiome to lifelong health and well-being.

Your microbiome is a stupendously diverse and interactive collection of microbes living primarily in your large intestine. Some authorities estimate that you have more microbes in your intestines than there are stars in the universe.

What’s going on in your lower tract, anyway? Microbes of various stripes feed on parts of foods your body can’t digest. Microbe food is also known as fiber. The lack of oxygen in the gut means that microbes there ferment fibrous materials you eat. Microbial fermentation produces intestinal gas and short-chain fatty acids that we absorb and burn for fuel.

You might think that your micro-neighbors are of little consequence. But you’d be wrong. Recent research reveals that your microbiome acts as a signaling “organ”. It sends chemical messages to various parts of your body. The microbiome monitors and influences your bodily functions far more intimately than previously appreciated. A simplified and unbalanced microbiome predicts Crohn’s disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and autism.

Microbiologists Justin Sonnenburg and his wife, Erica Sonnenburg, of Stanford University study the microbiome. They provide a fascinating glimpse of the wonders of the microbiome in their highly readable book, The Good Gut. They note with alarm the declining microbial diversity of a typical American gut. The Sonnenburgs attribute this decline to 1) increased consumption of processed foods, 2) widespread use of antibiotics, 3) rise in Cesarean section births, and 4) decline in breast feeding.

How can you nurture your microbiome? You can’t change our birth or whether you were breast fed or not. But you can eat better and limit your use of antibiotics to situations in which they are truly helpful. For example, taking an antibiotic to relieve a nasty cold probably won’t help you recover any faster, but it will simplify your microbiome.

How can you eat better? Processed foods commonly contain minimal amounts of fiber, plus they often contain ingredients that you don’t want, such as sugar, trans-fats, and preservatives. An easy way to befriend your microbiome is to eat more fiber. A typical American eats about 15 grams of fiber a day. The Institute of Medicine recommends 25 grams a day for women and 38 for men. Good sources of fiber include whole grains, wheat and oat bran, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, vegetables, and fruits.

On most days I eat a high-fiber lunch as shown in the photo. The lunch includes a mixture of 3/8 cup of wheat bran (9 grams of fiber), 1/8 cup of oat bran (2 grams), ½ cup blueberries (2 grams), ½ cut low-fat Greek yoghurt (0 grams), ½ cup grass-fed low-fat milk (0 grams), and a sprinkle of cinnamon. My microbiome-friendly lunch also includes one medium apple (4 grams), one medium orange (2 grams), one medium carrot (4 grams), and 4 tablespoons cup hummus (4 grams). Last but not least, 2 cups chopped cabbage that I steam (6 grams), 2 tablespoons wheat germ (1 gram), and a sprinkle of olive oil (0 grams). Total fiber = 34 grams. Aside from nurturing my microbiome, this lunch helps reduce my risk of chronic diseases because of the abundant veggies, fruits, protein, and modest amounts of fat.

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