Those who are trying to improve gut health encounter confusing information, especially around the terms microbiome, probiotics and prebiotics. Before we try to define these words, though, let’s discuss why they are important.
Jeff Leach, a scientist with the American Gut Project said 90 percent of the cells in humans are microbial which means, “we are more microbe than mammal.”
Of course, we aren’t just a microbe walking around on two legs, but this information does help us understand why keeping the microbes or bacteria in our body healthy, has such a huge impact on our overall well-being.
Dr. Anderson and other functional medicine practitioners focus on gut health because, “The digestive tract is home to more than 500 species of bacteria, comprising about 100 trillion bugs altogether.” (Institute for Functional Medicine)
These bugs or microbes do amazing things such as digesting and breaking down foods, breaking down toxins and drugs and metabolizing hormones, absorbing vitamins and keeping our immune system strong.
So how do we keep this system healthy? Let’s define some terms to help us answer that question.
Microbiome – this is the ecosystem of our gut, which includes all the microbes with their incredible diversity. Dr. Anderson said your microbiome is established very early in life and its health is affected from the very beginning by factors such as: vaginal birth vs. caesarean section, breast fed vs. bottle fed, antibiotic use, lifestyle, stress and diet for both mother and child.
To help her patients understand the microbiome, Dr. Anderson compares it to a zoo. She said a healthy zoo has a diversity of animals with each animal living in its own unique environment and needing its own separate kind of food in order to stay healthy and alive.
Probiotics – all the beneficial bacteria in your gut. If the microbiome is the zoo, the probiotics are the different animals with their own needs, traits and skills.
These bacteria, when healthy, can fight disease but an imbalance in bacteria-often referred to as dysbiosis-can lead to disease. Dr. Anderson stresses that each animal or species of bacteria needs to be fed separately every day. Not only does our diet potentially nurture or harm our microbiome, so too do things like medications, stress, toxins, and chemicals.
As Jeff Leach said, if you don’t give your bacteria enough to eat, they need to eat something so they start to eat you. They’ll eat the mucous lining of your colon. And ultimately, if you don’t feed the bacteria in your colon, just like unfed zoo animals, they will die.
“If you starve an ecosystem, the healthy bacteria die out and weedy, opportunistic pathogens flourish,” Leach said. Opportunistic pathogens are bacteria that can cause disease when given the opportunity.
To use another comparison, an unfed microbiome is like an unwatered lawn. The grass and flowers die and the weeds take over.
Prebiotics – Foods that feed the probiotics. And what is the primary food for the probiotics in our system? Fiber. Preferably whole plant fiber. A quantity and diversity of plant fiber everyday keeps the bacteria in our gut healthy.
Just a word about an unhealthy diet: not only does it not nourish you or promote health, it also feeds the bad bacteria, yeast and viruses in the microbiome that make us sick. An example is candida that feeds on sugar and starch. This is a very common underlying contributor to symptoms like joint pain, depression and brain fog, and often drives sugar cravings.
Now that we know the terms, though, how do we make sense of all the products containing probiotics on the market?
Dr. Anderson said, “When you buy probiotics, you are only getting a few strains and you need hundreds of strains.”
She said a healthy gut should be colonized by probiotics, which means the probiotics have moved in and are living there permanently. Taking probiotics by mouth is like inviting tourists into the zoo. They come in and might help out a little but they aren’t staying.
“True health is permanent. Colonization happens when good bacteria move in and set up shop,” Dr. Anderson said.
This brings us to two other terms:
Monoculture – what happens when a person has been taking one probiotic for years, leaving just a few strains of the good bacteria that are fed by that particular probiotic.
Synbiotics – supplements that contain both pro and pre-biotics.
So how do we feed our microbiome, how do we feed our zoo?
Dr. Anderson said supplements can help and a functional medicine practitioner can assist in finding quality supplements. A diversity of healthy foods, though, is the best way to feed your microbiome. This includes both probiotic foods that contain good bacteria such as: acidophilus milk, kefir, yogurt (plain, no added sugar, active cultures), fermented vegetables, kimchi, kombucha, miso, pickled vegetables, sauerkraut and tempeh. And, prebiotics or plant fiber such as: asparagus, bananas, dandelion greens, eggplant, garlic, honey, leeks, legumes, onions, peas, jicama and whole grains.
Keep reading to learn more about ways to take care of your microbiome, and how that affected one of Dr. Anderson’s clients. Happy microbiome, happy life!