Still in the abyss of a pandemic, it has never been more important to put our own health into our hands and get healthy. Luckily, our bodies have a built-in health system waiting for us to activate. That system is located in our gut. Did you know that 70-80% of the immune system resides in the gut?
Our whole body is teeming with bacteria (and not just bacteria, but fungi, viruses and parasites) that make up what’s called the Microbiome. The gut itself has about 100 trillion bacteria that call it home. These bacteria, both good and bad, make up the building blocks of a person’s health system and essentially determine how healthy they will be. It is like an army of health ready to attack any incoming threat. Unfortunately, most of us do not have a great defensive system. Many of us, through a typical American diet, have fortified the bad guys and not the good ones. The CDC says that 9 out 10 adults don’t eat enough nutrient rich food to support a healthy immune system.
See, “nutrient rich food” is the key here. It is literally a key to turn on your healthy army. We want to feed the good bacteria and not the bad bacteria. Of that huge number of 100 trillion bacteria living in our gut, many of us have too many species sitting dormant, literally sleeping, because we haven’t been nourishing them. We want to feed those guys so they can keep us healthy. By eating nutrient rich foods, we nourish the many strains of good bacteria in our gut and create a diverse gut flora profile.
In a healthy person, there exists a bustling city of microbes (also called microorganisms or microbiota) that coexist peacefully. If the bad guys outgrow the good guys, then we develop a state of imbalance, more accurately called dysbiosis. An increased state of dysbiosis makes us more susceptible to numerous diseases and illnesses, which can and will lead to states of chronic illness for many. It is harder to fight off infections and viruses when we do not have a sufficiently healthy system to fight for us. The CDC has reported that a lack of a healthy immune system can lead to experiencing worse and longer Covid symptoms as well as longer Covid hospitalizations and higher death rates.
A study published by Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection states this: “Gut microbiota diversity is decreased in old age and Covid-19 has been mainly fatal in elderly patients which again points to the role the gut microbiota may play in this disease. Improving gut microbiota profile by personalized nutrition and supplementation known to improve immunity can be one of the prophylactic ways by which the impact of this disease can be minimized in old people and immune-compromised patients.” (Gut microbiota and Covid-19- possible link and implications, Dhar and Mohanty, Aug 2020)
The CDC has indicated specific vitamins and minerals that have been lacking in Covid patients. They are Vitamin C, Zinc and Vitamin D. You can speak with your doctor about adding these supplements in along with others that might be recommended for your own health profile. While supplementation might be a great way to jumpstart your health, it is really through foods and changing eating habits that will change the bacteria in your gut. Your body might not even fully absorb the goodness from those supplements if it cannot metabolize and digest properly. We need to turn on more good bacteria and begin to turn off the bad ones that have been thriving for too long.
Here are 4 beginning steps to a healthier gut:
Manage your carbs:
Carbs get a bad rap but not all carbs are bad. It is prudent for your health to recognize the good ones and eliminate the bad ones. Bad carbs to avoid are soda, juice, candy, white bread, baked goods (cookies, pastries and desserts), and other processed grains (white pasta, chips, crackers, pretzels) ice cream, energy drinks (coffee drinks), and the list goes on. “Good” carbs (aka complex carbohydrates) include foods like fruits, vegetables, some whole grains (quinoa, gluten free oats, buckwheat), and legumes/pulses. These good carbs are some of the most important foods for nurturing essential microbes (Source: The Microbiome Solution). Diversify your plate and you will most likely diversity your microbes. Side note: how to build your plate with nutrient rich foods is a great skill to learn and will be explored in another post. Skip the bad carbs and explore the food that nourishes.
Watch your meat intake:
A meat-rich diet has been linked to inflammation and intestinal diseases as well as building a less diverse microbiota when compared to a fiber-rich, plant-based diet. A study done by Harvard University scientists showed that a complete shift in microbiota can happen in just two days when they switched subjects to a diet full of meats and cheeses (read more here). Dr. Robynne Chutkan in her book The Microbiome Solution writes, “Bottom line: it’s not that meat is necessarily bad for the microbiome; it’s that dietary fiber is good for it, and eating too much of the former can lead to not eating enough of the latter” (p. 128). Vegetables and colorful foods should be the star of your plate. Meat can be a side show and should not be, as a rule of thumb, any larger than the size of your palm.
Eat more plants:
As stated above, diversify your plate and you will most certainly diversify your gut bacteria. The best way to do this is to increase vegetable intake. Eat vegetables of all kinds, shapes, and colors. Cook them in many different ways. Eat them raw, sautéed, and roasted. The more you eat this way the more your body will crave vegetables because you are feeding the good gut bacteria and producing the health-promoting short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are produced by beneficial bacteria in the gut and are essential for a healthy body and immune system. In order to increase these SCFAs, a diverse intake of dietary fiber is key. “When we don’t eat enough plant fiber, we risk starving the essential bacteria we’re trying to cultivate” (Source: The Microbiome Solution). To follow one of Michael Pollan’s 7 rules of eating, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Cut out sugar:
This is one most of us know and have heard time and time again. There is a reason why cutting out sugar is a common rule: it really works to make us healthier. Before I became a health coach, I remember a former Pilates client of mine telling me how sugar feeds cancer cells. As she was battling cancer at the time, it was crucial for her to cut sugar out of her diet. This fascinated me and I wanted to know more. I had no idea the body worked this way and is one of the big factors that sent me back to school.
Sugar is highly addictive for the body as it increases the microbes that flourish on it. This can happen within moments of consuming sugar and increases more thereafter the more it is consumed. Think your nightly ice cream consumption is harmless? (Or replace that with whatever treat you allow yourself daily). “Studies have shown that a diet high in sugar can lead to overgrowth of yeast species and other pathogenic bacteria” (Source: The Microbiome Solution). Research has also shown that “drinking sugary sodas significantly increases the risk of pancreatic cancer” (Source: The Inside Tract). And, more recently, a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine found that sugar consumption can lead to colon inflammation and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s diseases.
Basically, nothing fun seems to come out of consuming sugar in the long term. As delicious as it may taste in the moment, there is a myriad of evidence showing the negative effects of sugar on health. Your future self will thank you for the good health you give it now.
It is important to note that anything related to health, particularly diet, must be approached in a gentle manner. A daily step by step process must be followed so as not to shock the body into unknown territory. For example, if you eat poorly now, then decide to completely revamp your diet by changing everything the next day and thereafter, you might find yourself in a state of extreme discomfort as your body does not yet know how to digest all of these different foods all at once.
More specifically put another way, if you eat a diet rich in red meats and simple carbs now, only a few types of bacteria are being fed in your gut – the kind that digest red meat and simple carbs. If you were to switch that up completely in one day and begin eating more plant-based whole foods like vegetables, legumes, and whole grains like quinoa, you might find yourself bloated and uncomfortable. This is because the bacteria that feed off of these foods have been asleep for so long and the ones that are active (the red meat and simple carbs guys) are now deprived. On top of the discomfort, this can lead to feelings of being “hangry,” not satisfied, and having craving after craving unlike any you might have been experiencing before. This is why diets do not work. There is no quick fix in a healthy lifestyle.
Therefore, change one thing at a time every 3-5 days. Think baby steps and not giant leaps. The microbiome can begin changing within just 2-5 days of diet and lifestyle changes.
Stay tuned for the next post in this gut health series which will include more steps to increase your gut health. It is too easy to become overwhelmed when starting a new healthy food plan and lifestyle, so focusing on fewer steps at a time will maximize success.
I would love to hear how you begin to incorporate these steps into your day to day. What will be your first step?