Most of us know a bit about the gut microbiome but may not fully appreciate its importance. Your complete microbiome consists of all the microbes that live in and on your body. Estimates range up to more than 100 trillion micro-organisms, far more than your own body’s 30 trillion cells.
We’ve known and feared disease-causing bacteria for many years. In 2006 we began to learn about thousands of other bacterial species that we didn’t know existed. Great research has been done in this arena since then. One of the things we’ve learned is that the gut microbiome has a major impact on human health, much of it good!
Helpful gut bacteria digest insoluble fiber for us that we cannot digest. They produce Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs) that are powerful healing agents, repairing leaky guts and making the immune system stronger. (About 70 percent of our immune cells are in the gut.) SCFAs also help lower cholesterol, improve weight control, and help protect us from cancer, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. They even cross the blood-brain barrier to help improve learning and memory.
The gut microbiome DNA is far more extensive than our own DNA. Our genetic makeup is dominated by the microbes we carry within us. To simplify a complex matter, think of the gut microbiome as a mix of “good” and “bad” bacteria. They influence our DNA accordingly, and this in turn has an impact on genetically related diseases.
For all these reasons, promoting our good bacteria is a good idea. Unhappily, the standard American diet with its highly processed fast foods fails to do this. Instead, it feeds the bad bacteria, with poor long-term consequences to our health. We may not feel these effects for several years, but like termites in a house, they seriously undermine our health.
Some of these effects include the production of toxins that increase intestinal permeability and inflammation. A product known as TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide) increases the risk of many serious chronic diseases. High intake of animal protein is associated with increased TMAO production. A substantial change to plant-based proteins drops TMAO levels dramatically.
What can boost our good bacteria? They like fiber, while bad bacteria prefer foods with little or no fiber, such as dairy, meat, fish, and refined processed foods. (Refining removes most of the fiber.) Plant-based high-fiber foods feed our good bacteria. Low or no-fiber foods starve the good bacteria and feed the bad bacteria.
We each shape our gut microbiome by what we eat. If we move to a high-fiber diet, our microbiome changes also, the good bacteria becoming much stronger within weeks. They begin to produce more and more SCFAs and we begin to reap their long-term benefits. TMAO levels and risks drop at the same time, so we get a double benefit.
Unfortunately, making a quick move from a low-fiber Western diet to a plant-strong diet is easier said than done. Many people who are not used to high-fiber foods have trouble with bloating and abdominal discomfort when they begin to eat many high-fiber foods. The gut is simply not ready to handle a high-fiber load at that point, but there is a solution.
Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, a top GI specialist in North Carolina, recommends “starting low and going slow” for anyone changing to high-fiber foods. Dr. B, as his patients call him, is the author of a new book: FIBER FUELED: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your Microbiome. I recommend his book to anyone interested in this subject. It includes a detailed four-week plan to help anyone adopt plant-based foods.
In conclusion, your gut microbiome has amazing potential. For better or worse, it has a big impact on your health destiny. Sadly, for many people, long-term health is shaped by an unhealthy microbiome, but they don’t have to live at its mercy. Feed your microbiome healthy foods, and it will work wonders to improve your health!