Read the first post All About Your Amazing Microbiome.
What’s this about diversity?
The general theory is that more diversity in your microbial species is better. Diversity provides a greater variety of beneficial byproducts to handle the tasks at hand.
The species lactobacillus and bifidus (colloquial name for bifidobacteria) are well-known gut microbes, and make up the bulk of probiotic supplements. However, while lacto and bifido supplements can help you as they travel through your GI tract, the supplemental strains do not colonize. They are beneficial, yet transient – like wanted guests that don’t move in. Evidence shows that when you stop taking them, your own colonies of lactobacillus and bifidobacteria are no different.
We share bacterial species with humans around the globe. These species also show up in fossilized stool from thousands of years ago. These “ancestral” species may be “keystone” species, meaning they are so important to our human gut microbiota, that if missing or “lost,” the ecosystem is disrupted. Unlike lacto and bifido, most keystone species cannot be taken in a pill or cultured in a food. Rather, they can only be cultivated through feeding and growing them inside your gut.
Antibiotics wipe out our microbial diversity
Antibiotics have done wonders for saving and prolonging lives, but clearly we have overused them. The first time you take antibiotics, you obliterate the precious microbiota that you have cultivated since birth, and it never returns as it was before. You can imagine what multiple doses of antibiotics do!
People think they can prevent this loss by taking tiny doses of lactobacillus and bifidus strains. These strains may help as they travel through; however they are transient guests and will not colonize. Plus the tiny amount that comes in probiotic capsules is a bit like spitting in the wind, compared to your seven pounds of gut bacteria.
Doctors are suggesting probiotic therapy following antibiotic therapy, and this is good start. However, research shows that probiotics are far more effective if they are taken during antibiotic therapy, instead of waiting until after. They can reduce side effects of antibiotics as well.
Babies, C-Sections, and breastfeeding
Cesarean section births don’t let babies inherit microbes from their mother’s vagina (birth canal). Instead they inherit microbes from their mother’s placenta and skin, and the hospital, and through breast milk – which is a very different biome without birth canal exposure. Swabbing C-section babies with the mother’s vaginal fluid, a technique called “vaginal swabbing,” is catching on.
Breastfeeding establishes and feeds microbes from a special fiber called HMO (Human Milk Oligosaccharide). Breast milk also has live bacteria. Formula companies are substituting GOS (galactose oligosaccharide, derived from cow’s milk) and probiotics. There is no evidence yet as to how this affects babies’ microbiota.
Kiss your dog and put your hands in the dirt
The move from living outdoors to indoors in our evolution drastically cut down our microbial exposure. In cites we don’t often garden, play in healthy dirt, and live with a variety of animals. This results in much lower microbial diversity, with a detrimental affect on our immunity. Studies show that children who were brought up on farms with animals have less asthma and allergies. * *
- The hygiene hypothesis states that a lack of childhood exposure to microbes increases allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.
- The old friends hypothesis recognizes that missing microbes also affect chronic inflammatory diseases and autoimmune diseases.
The cause for missing microbes is not just due to being clean and out of the dirt, there are other factors involved, like diet.
Modern industrial diets = microbe starvation
Possibly the biggest factor in our loss of diversity is our modern diet and its:
- Lack of “microbial accessible fiber” (MAC). The Sonnenburgs, Stanford gut microbe researchers and authors of The Good Gut coined this term.
- Lack of a diverse array of polyphenols from fruits and vegetables, as polyphenols feed beneficial microbes.
- Not enough sulfur-containing vegetables in our diets (some beneficial microbes need sulfur) – contained in garlic, onions, and brassica vegetables.
- Abundance of simple sugars that feed the wrong microbes, in the wrong places.
Lack of MAC
Traditional cultures and hunter-gatherers eat a lot of MAC, from 30 to 200 grams per day. We Americans typically eat only 10 to 15 grams of fiber on a good day. Our lack of dietary fiber starves our microbiota.
The Sonnenburgs write that more MAC, and more microbiota diversity, helps weight loss and lowers inflammatory diseases.
“Nurturing our gut bacteria so that they produce the compounds that our bodies need
is one of the most important choices we can make for our health.”
– Justin and Erica Sonnenburg
Too much sugar n’ starch
Our modern Western diet provides excessive, inexpensive simple sugars and starches, 24/7. It is too easy to get food like this, around the clock. It’s everywhere and you can get it with very little effort. What happens with simple sugars and starches?
You either absorb them as glucose, or your microbes ferment them. Often this fermentation takes place way higher in your gastrointestinal tract than should happen. Hence, small intestine microbial overgrowth is rampant. Think belching, bloating and reflux after eating.
Simple sugars and starch never make it down to your large intestine to act as MACS. Instead they get turned into glucose. Excess glucose becomes fat, or feeds microbes in areas we don’t want.
Excessive sugar and starch can also starve bacteria in your colon. People often show up with bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, and a lack of bacteria in the colon, which is the opposite of what you need.
So in a nutshell, what can you DO to increase diversity? Abstain from antibiotics, move into your backyard with some animals, roll around in healthy dirt, stop bathing, and eat roughage? Here’s practical tips:
- Minimize added simple sugars and refined starches. Look at labels for sugar content. Refined starches are those made from flour products, such as white bread, most bread, pastries, cookies, pasta, tortillas, and packaged grain foods in general.
- Eat resistant starch. This includes beans, tiger nuts, plantains and bananas on the green side, white rice and potatoes that have been cooked then cooled.
- Eat lots of whole plants in the form of vegetables and fruit.
- Swab your C-section baby with your vaginal fluid. If you need to use formula, do supplement with GOS and possibly some probiotics. Please consult with a medical provider.
- Stop obsessive hand washing. Yes, it’s a good idea after being in a medical clinic, a crowded grocery store, or a preschool classroom. But after petting the dog or picking a carrot from the organic garden? Don’t bother.
- Don’t use antibacterial cleansers, wipes, washes. Vinegar and soap work well! Antibacterial cleansers are a problem in that they lower diversity and create super bugs at the same time.
- Live with dogs if you don’t live on a farm. Their microbiota will improve yours, and vice versa.
- Use antibiotics sparingly. Try botanical anti-microbials first. They work just as well in many cases, if not better. Many don’t have the same scorched earth effect on your microbiota that pharmaceuticals have.
- Read Feeding Your Microbiome: A Fiber Primer.
For more detailed information about feeding your “good” guys,” check out Feeding Your Microbiome: A Fiber Primer.