In 1676, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microbiology, scraped some plaque off his teeth, peered into a microscope, and discovered “many very little living animalcules.” In 2012, scientists completed the Human Microbiome Project, which determined that our bodies are home to 100 trillion microbes. They outnumber our own cells by a factor of 10!
The 200 scientists involved in the Human Microbiome Project evaluated samples taken from the gut, saliva, skin, and other sites in and on 242 healthy adults. They identified an astonishing array of microorganisms such as yeasts, viruses, and at least 10,000 types of bacteria in every nook and cranny. They also discovered that every individual’s microbiome (the totality of microbes) is unique, and that disturbances are linked with a host of medical problems.
Microbes, of course, can make you sick, but most work to your benefit. They help keep the gut healthy, digest food, and produce nutrients such as biotin, vitamin K, and short-chain fatty acids. They influence energy regulation and fat storage and thus play a role in metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and weight. And because of the close relationship between the gut and the brain, these microorganisms even affect your emotional well-being.
They also help prevent infections. Bacteria in the intestinal tract “teach” the immune system not to overreact to allergens and healthy tissues but to respond only to pathogens. Furthermore, for pathogens to cause harm, they have to compete with resident microbes for food and space.
As you can see, it’s important to do what you can to nurture your microorganisms. Here is what I recommend for maintaining a healthy microbiome:
- Avoid antibiotics whenever possible. These drugs can be lifesaving. But too often they are prescribed and taken for infections they’re useless against. Antibiotic-related diarrhea and vaginal infections aren’t caused by drugs. They’re caused by opportunistic bacteria that gain a foothold when antibiotics kill off beneficial flora.
- Eat plenty of prebiotics, indigestible carbohydrates that bacteria thrive on. Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables and bananas, onions, artichokes, whole grains, and garlic, in particular, stimulate the growth of gut flora.
- Consume fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickled vegetables. They contain live bacteria (probiotics) that help populate the intestinal tract.
- Take supplements containing prebiotics and probiotics. Supplemental prebiotics include inulin and fructooligosaccharide (FOS). Popular strains of probiotics are Lactobacillius (L. acidophilus, L. plantarum, and L. rhamnosus), Bifidobacteria (B. bifidum and B. longum), and Saccharomyces boulardii (a yeast used to treat diarrhea). Buy from a reputable company and take as directed.
Now it’s your turn: Are you already doing any of these things to help nurture your microbes?