When Michael Pollan, Dr. Oz and two real life formerly-fat women schooled me on the relationship between gut bacteria, antibiotics and weight gain all in the same week, I knew I had to dig deeper into the issue.
The number of times I’ve heard the phrase “human microbiome” since then, particularly in relation to it being the next frontier of medical research, is more than considerable. (“Then” was back in February when I did this great interview, read Pollan’s Cooked, and caught a Dr. Oz article in the checkout line at Meijer in a magazine.)
If you haven’t already heard from both mainstream and real food/crunchy-culture media sources, the human body is host to over 3 trillion different bacteria, many of them beneficial to our health. Collectively, they’re termed the human microbiome, and now that gene sequence has been mapped, science is moving on to figuring out the who’s who of the little bugs in our systems.
Many scientists are nearly giddy with anticipation about the next discovery of bacterial importance in this process, fascinated, as am I, by what connections we may be able to pin between our bacteria and specific aspects of our health.
Although there’s plenty to read about the microbiome and we will likely be inundated with more for years to come, I hope to give you a nice foundation of basic information today, something you can refer to as you read about the microbiome in the years to come just to make sure you understand where these bacteria come from, a few examples of the importance they play in our health, how imbalances might occur and what we can do about it, at least with the knowledge we have at this moment.
You know what’s funny? My spellcheck doesn’t even recognize “microbiome” as a word yet. I predict that’s about to change…
This post is sponsored by Well Future, makers of the Well Belly probiotic for kids.
Nice to Meet You, Mr. Bacterium
Where does our microbiome come from?
It is widely accepted that newborns in the womb have no personal gut bacteria yet, that their existence is sterile. (Will this understanding change soon too? Possible! We’ll see…) Therefore as soon as the baby is exposed to the world, i.e. once the membranes have broken or are torn by human intervention, resident bacteria begin the process of settling in.
Your very first experiences on earth outside your mother, therefore, turn out to be critical in populating your own microbiome, the little guys who will be with you, generally, unless disrupted, for your lifetime.
Vaginal births impart the mother’s bacterial composition, more or less. The birth canal begins to populate with different bacteria than usual as the mother’s body prepares for childbirth, which is such a phenomenal demonstration of God’s design for our microbiome, it blows me away. Many of the bacteria present awaiting baby are lactobacilli, who function in part to help humans digest milk, for example – including breastmilk. Perfect design…
If the mother’s bacterial or fungal balance is off, however, such as a mother with candida or her own poor gut bacteria, that will be passed to the child in some way.
Caesarean sections are a much different story – newborn infants are covered with the bacteria of other people’s skin first, not necessarily even the mother’s, in spite of sterile hospital procedures. Their microbiome beginnings are far less diverse, and most likely far less appropriate and healthy, than vaginal birth babies.
I predict that as we learn more about our early flora, C-section babies will be inoculated somehow with bacteria, etc. from their mother’s vaginal tract – or at least somehow given a set of bacteria that scientists think is optimal, probably starting out very regimented and somewhat like vaccines, and eventually coming around to realizing that God knew best and just using the mother’s own composition of microbiotics.
There’s Some Interference on the Line
As important as a human’s first experience with the world of bacteria and fungi is, there are a multitude of ways in which our day-to-day activity can improve or disparage our own microbiome. For example, every time we eat, we are potentially affecting the colonization of our gut, either by adding beneficial bacteria directly, feeding the bad guys, or even feeding the good guys.
In the American culture, we tend to feed the bad guys or simply kill everybody in there more often than we do beneficial things, which is likely manifesting itself in the upsurge of irritable bowel syndrome, auto-immune disease, and even obesity.
Germ Warfare and Accidental Casualties
One of the major mistakes of our modern era is the overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial cleaning agents and the lack of understanding about how to heal the gut after a required antibiotic. (See my thoughts on triclosan in antibacterial soap, for example, and an exploration of the pros and cons of hand sanitizers.)
I read something a few years back that described antibiotics as a “hand grenade” that obliterates all bacteria in its path, both good and bad. This can totally destroy even a healthy microbiome instituted via a natural birth, and if the newly upturned (and rather empty) soil of your system isn’t repopulated with healthy bacteria first, it’s most likely that the diet and environment typical to most human beings in industrialized societies will quickly populate the gut with “bad guys.”
I wrote more on the subject of what to do after antibiotics here, but I want you to think about how many newborns get antibiotics while they’re still in the hospital (or even during delivery), how many children under two get antibiotics for ear infections, fevers, and the like, many of which probably aren’t even necessary, and how many rounds of antibiotics you’ve had in your life.
Did you ever think you had to take steps afterward to fix the damage done by the medicine that was supposed to fix you?
Many of you savvy KSers surely have, but likely not throughout your entire life. Any of those antibiotics could have upset your microbiome enough that you have trouble losing weight, that you’ve been diagnosed with IBS or other bowel diseases, or that you may have a food sensitivity. The balance of your gut is so important – no hand grenades allowed!
Our Best Weapons in the Micro-Battle
Unfortunately, most folks don’t even realize they’re in a battle for the health of their own microbiome, and they certainly don’t know the weapons they need to employ to come out victorious.
If you’ve had antibiotics, if you’ve grown up on processed, sugary foods, if you know you suffer from candida or IBS, what can you DO about it?
The first step is to starve the bad guys, in my opinion (but you should really do all three parts here).
Processed foods, refined flours and sugars are culprits in the “fat bacteria” studies and also have been shown to increase the percentage of unhealthy bacteria in one’s gut simply by creating an inhospitable environment in which they thrive.
So if you think your bacteria might not be very well balanced, cut out foods like:
- white flour
- sugary sweets
- soda and other liquid sugars!!
Good Guy Army
Step two is to make sure you have plenty of “good guys” to edge out the bad guys. Good guy bacteria are called probiotics, and they assist in many aspects of digestion, immunity, and even metabolism. (Who knew you had such a team on your side?!)
If your bacterial balance has been thrown off by a lifetime of processed foods, a few rounds of antibiotics or even as far back as a C-section birth, you need to help the probiotics find their way back to your gut so you can shift the balance back toward “helpful.”
You can obtain beneficial probiotics through food:
- Yogurt (okay), kefir (even better!)
- Sauerkraut (but only traditionally fermented, not the pasteurized stuff you buy in most grocery stores)
- Homemade kimchi, which I prefer over sauerkraut
- Other fermented vegetables or cultured dairy
Or via supplements (or both, best case scenario).
The generous sponsor of this post is Well Future, creator of a special probiotic specifically formulated for infants and children called Well Belly. Well Belly has 8 strains of probiotics, each with research backing its beneficial nature for children.
Sponsoring this post meant that I actually did the research and got it written instead of just thinking a lot about it (did you notice I’d been pondering the topic for over 6 months?), so I’m grateful to Well Belly for the nudge! I think everyone should understand more about their microbiome and how to keep their gut bacteria balance, happy and healthy.
Many of you are going to ask why we’re working with Well Belly when I’ve already mentioned many times that my family takes another brand of probiotics regularly, so here are a few reasons you might want to look into Well Belly:
- It totally disappears into yogurt or applesauce, no taste, no color (I’m sure it would into juice, too). This is important for kids who won’t take something special off a spoon and much different from the green, icky-tasting probiotic powder my husband and I use.
- My kids are huge fans – when they even know that I’ve put it in their yogurt. It’s truly undetectable, unless you’re in a hurry and don’t stir well, after which you’ll hear: “Mom, what is this blob of sticky stuff in my yogurt???” I learned!
- It’s especially formulated for very young children.
- The cost is about 50 cents per day, comparable to or better than many probiotics out there.
- It’s very easy to serve – the scoop is included and the serving is one scoop per day.
If your kids have had antibiotics or were born via C-section, or if anyone in your family has signs of digestive distress, I’d highly recommend a probiotic supplement, even if you’re eating yogurt every day. Food sources are great and might be sufficient, but if your balance is really off, it’s likely that you’ll need powerhouse help at levels beyond a scoop of sauerkraut (but food is awesome for maintenance if you feel you’re in a good place!).
In fact, if you’re a human being – I’d recommend a probiotic supplement. Remember this is just one mom gabbing to another, not a doctor, nurse, or anyone who knows much of anything other than great results in my own family and via testimonials from readers.
For All Ages…
Some Quality Probiotics
Some of these I’ve used, some I’m planning to use, and some have been recommended by friends and professionals alike. It’s good to remember a few things about probiotics: 1. People should get different colonies of probiotics, so switching brands/strains every so often (6 weeks?) is good practice. 2. What works great for one person’s needs doesn’t always work for another. These can be very different! A one-day trial to Probiotic Advisor might help you get up on current research quickly if you’re really digging in; otherwise, here are some to narrow down the thousands of brands out there.
I’ve personally tried:
- Just Thrive Probiotics – this one can be taken during antibiotics and not be rendered ineffective, which almost all other probiotics are! It’s the top recommended probiotic overall by Paleo Mom Sarah Ballantyne. 😮
- RightBioticsRX – the top recommended probiotic of all soil-based options by an expert I’ve been working with. Read more here. Use Subscribe and Save to save more!
- Note: If you’re struggling with digestion, especially constipation, or you feel like you really need to populate your gut with healthy probiotics, I would recommend Saccharomyces Boulardii in addition to any other you choose (except the 2 above which include this strain). Saccharomyces Boulardii is research-proven to get through the digestive tract without being killed, which is rare.
- Seed Daily Synbiotic – the new player in the field but recommended by superstars like Chris Kresser for its unique probiotic/prebiotic synergy. Here’s my full review including a number of surprises for my thinking and a 15% off code!
- Balance One probiotics with a unique time-release formula (use the code KITCHENS15 at either Balance One’s site or even Amazon to save 15% either place! Wow! Use the code at checkout on Amazon btw.)
For Little Ones (we use all of these):
- Mary Ruth’s liquid probiotic is a soil-based, liquid probiotic that doesn’t need to be refrigerated and tastes like…nothing! It’s my new favorite for administering to kids!
- WellBelly by WellFuture (9 strains of probiotics in apple and banana carrier – it’s a powder)
- Buddies in my Belly probiotic powder (2 strains of probiotics + potato starch carrier and prebiotics) or chewable tablets
Recommended by experts I trust:
- Biokult – highly recommended by many, including the GAPS diet
- Klaire Labs Pro-biotic complex V-caps or Ther-Biotic Complete (25 billion CFU)
- Probiophage DF (7 dairy-free strains)
- Transformation Enzymes (5 billion CFUs that may get through digestive tract…)
- Primal Blueprint (6 strains, 10 billion CFUs)
- Pharmax high potency (4 strains + FOS) or long-term HLC maintenance (2 strains)
- Pro-Bio from Enzymedica (8 strains)
- Syntol from Arthur Andrew Medical (13.6 billion CFUs with prebiotic, spore germinating blend, yeast cleanse)
- Dr. Mercola’s probiotics
MREs for the Good Guys
Once the good guy army is in place, you’ve got to make sure your own gut is an hospitable environment for them. They’ll get out of dodge if they don’t have anything to eat, just like teenage boys and any other organism!
So what do probiotics eat?
Answer: The new buzz word in media-driven medicine and pop health culture: prebiotics.
Luckily, just because pop culture is hyping it doesn’t always mean it’s wrong. It might mean that you’ll have to wade through some marketing to find the “real food” versions of prebiotics and sift out the still-processed or too-new-to-be-traditional stuff.
Prebiotics basically means fiber that is indigestible for humans but feeds the bacteria awaiting its passage into the gut. Along with probiotics, they’re found in human breastmilk, which is a key factor in proving in my mind that humans were designed to require them.
The big-word terms that we need to consume include soluble fiber, inulin, oligofructose, possibly pectin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), galactooligosaccharides (GOS), and other oligosaccharides.
In food terms, that translates into certain foods like bananas (not overripe), honey, raw garlic and raw onions that actually help feed the good bacteria, making them healthy and robust and fostering growth, and thus greater health for the human host. Other prebiotic foods include leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, jicama, chicory root, dandelion greens, kale, radicchio and other leafy greens, apples, pears, figs and prunes – mostly only when they are eaten raw. It is also found in whole grains, but lesser so – best to stick to veggie sources whenever possible. (See a top 10 list including amounts in each source here.)
The tricky part of pop culture medicine is that when something is proven to be helpful, it seems food processing companies will try as quickly as they can to come out with products that meet the need and can’t really be grown in the ground or created in a home kitchen, thereby encouraging couch-residing Dr. Oz fans to buy their products.
I think “resistant starch” and sugar substitutes with inulin like stevia blends fall into that category – the Dr. Oz article in First for Women magazine quotes: “Fostering skinny bacteria doesn’t mean you have to give up treats…you can turn desserts into diet superfoods.” The article recommends making chocolate cupcakes with resistant starch flour (3 lbs. for $10) and stevia. I’ve been meaning to look into the science behind resistant starch – which also includes eating green bananas and undercooking pasta – for a long time.
The bottom line is to eat some fiber and raw veggies in your diet and know that you’re giving your beneficial bacteria a good meal so they can keep doing the job of keeping you healthy from the inside out.
But Mommmmm, Do I Have To?
Is all this “care and feeding” of our tiniest residents really that important? Do we need to bother?
As I mentioned, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of how our resident bacteria impact our health, but here are only a few examples of what we’re discovering so far:
1. Your Microbiome is Making You Fat
That’s right – fat.
Just this year a study came out demonstrating that one’s resident bacteria can actually have a major impact on weight gain, regardless of current diet. Scientists took bacteria from twins, one overweight and the other trim, and shared them with mice. The mice, even on the same diet, matched their human counterparts exactly – fat bacteria made them fat, skinny bacteria kept them thin.
Other researchers followed up with some studies on how to switch “fat” bacteria with “skinny” bacteria, and it looks like the answer is to get good probiotics into the system via food or supplements and then feed them with fiber, aka “prebiotics” (see above for a list of examples). Processed foods were a big problem and cause of the “fat” bacteria taking over, FYI.
I even read about the link between gut bacteria and insulin resistance in the book Why We Get Fat (and what to do about it) – more and more information will be coming out every month, I’m sure.
2. The Microbiome and Genetically Modified Foods
Another example of “what we didn’t used to know” that now has an impact on our health – I was listening to some talks on genetically modified foods recently, and the speakers said that since glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, cannot act on humans in the same way it does on plants, its creators “proved” that it can’t hurt us.
The background: glyphosate blocks an enzyme pathway that is in plants, but not humans. By interfering with the enzyme, glyphosate (Roundup) makes the plants unable to synthesize these amino acids (proteins): phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan, at least some of which are part of human biology and survival.
But since humans can’t have their “shikimate” enzymes blocked, because we don’t even have any, glyphosate couldn’t possible interfere with our own aminos or overall health.
That’s what the company who makes Roundup would like you to believe.
It turns out that many of our own gut bacteria do have shikimate enzymes, the lucky bums, which means they are affected each time we consume any glyphosate, such as non-organic products that are made from corn or corn syrup.
So the “non-toxic” glyphosate is messing with gut bacteria in a serious way, which of course impacts our health in a serious way, even though the herbicide doesn’t actually hurt us. It’s all connected…
3. Oops, My Gut is Leaking All Over the Place
Finally, my last example (but far from the end) is what naturopaths have understood for a long time but that rarely seems to hit the mainstream, probably because pharmaceutical companies couldn’t figure out how to make money from the news. It’s the connection between the gut wall, probiotics, and food sensitivities.
We’ve discussed a lot about this issue on KS before, most prominently in an awesome guest post on irregularity and stomach pain after eating by Lydia Shatney, certified nutritional therapist.
But basically, if you don’t want to click over to read that article (although you should!), the lining of the intestine becomes too porous as a result of certain drugs (birth control may be one), food sensitivities, alcohol and more. When food proteins “leak” through the wall of the gut, it causes not only intestinal distress, but also further food sensitivities and bacterial imbalances. It’s a vicious cycle, and our gut bacteria are at the hub.
Your Microbiome: Feed it Well
If you’ve made it this far down in the post, congratulations. I hope you are convinced not only that your resident bacteria are important to your health, but that you need to do what you can to take care of the good guys and balance out your system.
I, for one, am super excited to see what science learns over the next decade as they map our bacteria’s genes and connect them to certain body systems and ailments. I think it will open up a whole new world of treatments and preventions for disease, and it definitely lends itself to whole foods and natural remedies. Keep your eyes peeled for more!
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Disclosure: This post was a paid post from Well Future, but the research, opinions and possible mistakes are all my own. There are affiliate links in this post from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. See my full disclosure statement here.