Why your belly needs bacteria

Jul 16, 2014

Tara McCoy is a health coach at Freelancers Medical.

What if I told you that within the freelance population, a larger, unseen community exists?

While you can’t network with this community, they may play a vital role in supporting a healthy freelance lifestyle. I’m talking about the microbiome, made up of the trillions of microorganisms that coexist within us.

The concept of trillions of microorganisms living on and in us, contributing to things like metabolism, mood and GI health is fascinating if not a little creepy. These organisms reside on any surface of the body exposed to the outside world (think the GI and urogenital tract, nasal and lung passages and the skin). With our cellular composition coming in it at 10:1, microbial to human, it also makes you question the commonly held notion of “self” but I’ll save that for another, more esoteric post.

I’ve been following the research on the microbiome with growing excitement. Promising studies connecting a suboptimal microbiome to illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema and even anxiety continue to emerge. There’s even some pretty good evidence that antibiotics impact on our flora may be a key contributor to the obesity epidemic. While the research is fascinating, it’s still nascent and I’m waiting for a reputable scientific body to release practical guidelines on how to optimize my composition of bugs for glowing health and a calm, happy mood. While waiting for the research to unfold, I’m going to hedge my bets on the following as some low risk ways to cultivate a healthy microbial ecosystem:

- Avoid the standard American diet. It appears a high fat, high sugar and low fiber diets negatively impact your microbiome.

- Eat fiber and prebiotics. Prebiotics are basically the food (non-digestible carbs) that the good bacteria in your GI tract eat and need to thrive. Read: eat vegetables and foods like whole grains, banana, onions, garlic, honey, artichokes and asparagus which seem to be some of the best sources of prebiotics.

- Be delivered vaginally and breast-fed. OK OK, obviously out of your control and as someone who doesn’t find pre-deterministic notions regarding health outcomes particularly empowering, I wouldn’t fret much if you were delivered via C-section. But, if your mom had a vaginal birth it appears you might have a head start in the microbiome game. Same with breast milk, which has key microbes for immune development that you may miss out with just formula.

- Take a probiotic supplement or better yet incorporate fermented foods into your diet like sauerkraut, kimchi and live-culture dairy products like yogurt (no added sugar) and kefir. As the research on probiotics and supplementation in general is mixed and the supplement industry under-regulated, I like to lean towards food sources instead. Get your mason jars ready, folks! Fermentation may be your new best friend.

- Only take antibiotics when necessary and if you do, dose yourself with probiotics after. This is a nice chart on when to avoid antibiotics. Not all medical providers follow this yet so it’s good to information to have in order to know if you’re being prescribed something unnecessarily.

- Avoid overuse of antibacterial soaps and cleansers. These can strip your skin of good bacteria. If you want to learn more about the burgeoning research on this and its implications for the future of the beauty industry, read this marathon of an article.

All this microbiome research has inspired me to combine my love of cooking, health and the microbiome, so I’m diving into my first fermentation project (failed attempts at making kombucha aside). Stay tuned for part 2: Adventures with sauerkraut. If you like Portlandia, I’m sure you’ll enjoy mocking this upcoming post….

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