If you keep your microbiome healthy, it seems that it gives you a greater chance of staying healthy. Your microbiome is the collection of trillions of bacteria, phages, viruses, etc., that make up more cells of your body than your own.
We are part of a living community. What foods help our microbiome to thrive? What can you do to help your trillions of tiny helpers?
Our gut microbiome is made up of trillions of microorganisms living in our digestive system and plays an important role in our overall health and well-being.
Keeping a balanced and diverse gut microbiome has been linked to multiple benefits, including improved digestion, enhanced immune system functioning, and positive effects on mental health.
Nurturing a healthy gut microbiome is hugely dependent on our diet. Some foods help our biome more than others. By eating those, we encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria and create an environment conducive to optimal gut health.
What are those foods?
Fermented foods contain many prizes in the form of beneficial bacteria, giving them the gold medal for nurturing a healthy gut microbiome.
Fermented foods are, as their name suggests, made by using natural fermentation processes that encourage the growth of probiotics. Probiotics are beneficial live bacteria and yeasts.
Here are some of the most commonly available fermented foods: Yoghurt, cheese, kefir, sauerkraut, sourdough, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and kombucha.
These foods provide a diverse and rich supply of (good) bacterial strains, which help to replenish and diversify the gut microbiota. Incorporating fermented foods into your diet can enhance your digestion, boost nutrient absorption, and contribute to you having a stronger immune system.
Prebiotics are types of dietary fibre that serve as nourishment for our beneficial gut bacteria. They stimulate the growth and activity of our ‘microbial mates,’ helping them to help us to have a healthy gut environment.
Foods rich in prebiotics include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, oats, and chicory root. There is considerable evidence that if we include such fibre-rich foods in our culinary catalogue, we support the growth of beneficial bacteria in our gut. That, in turn, enhances our level of nutrient absorption and seems to reduce harmful inflammation.
Fibre-rich fruits and vegetables
Most people know about the near-universal health advice: eat at least five different fruit and vegetable per day. Among the many benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is that they provide us with much fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help keep our microbiome healthy.
Fibre is direct food for our beneficial bacteria. That enables them to thrive, which means we thrive. Here are some fibre-rich fruits and vegetables: Berries, carrots, apples, corn, oatmeal, bananas, broccoli, spinach, kale, and artichokes. They, and many more, fibre-packed foods nourish the gut microbiota, promote regular bowel movements, and support overall digestive health.
Omega-3 fatty acid sources
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Omega-3 fatty acids seem to have anti-inflammatory properties. They seem to reduce inflammation in the gut, contributing to a healthier microbiome and increasing nutrient absorption.
There are also plant-based sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Omega-3 fatty acids are also thought to be beneficial for brain functioning. Specifically, Omega-3 seems to enhance the communication between neurones, which assists overall brain functioning and may have a positive effect on mental health.
Diversity and moderation
The most up-to-date evidence indicates that if we have a diet that consists of at least 30 different fruit and vegetables per week, we are more likely to stay healthy.
Why? Frankly, we don’t know enough about the chemical and biochemical processes in our bodies, let alone those of the vast numbers of components of our microbiome, to know which fruit and vegetables are best for which person.
Until we have that knowledge, at some unknown point in the future, the best option is to have a widely varied diet, with all things consumed in moderation.
If we have a wide variety of foods, it nourishes different strains of bacteria, giving us a healthily diverse gut microbiome. It seems wisest to consume a rainbow of plant-based foods, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats to provide us and our gut microbes with a varied nutrient supply.
Avoid processed foods
There is an increasing body of evidence that processed foods are harmful to our gut microbiome. We are still unsure of the causal sequence or which parts are most damaged by processed “foods”.
Processed “foods” seem to be harmful in several ways, under two main categories: What nutrients are removed or depleted by the processing and what harmful chemicals are added. Very few of the added chemicals (there are many thousands of them) have been tested to determine what effects they have on our gut biome.
Since there can be no harm to health in avoiding processed foods, until we know specifically which additions or subtractions in processed foods are harmful, it seems wise to minimise or eliminate their consumption.
In terms of our health and well-being, it seems that our gut microbiome is one of our best friends. As you know, friends help each other to live and enjoy the best possible life.
What will you start doing today to help your microbial friends help you to be gut healthier?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.