Not yet acquainted with your microbiome? Welcome to one of the most important and intricate parts of your physiological functioning. The human body is covered, head to toe, in over 100 trillion microbes. Accumulated over the course of a lifetime, they reflect your complete lifestyle history—from where you’ve lived, to the food you’ve eaten, to medicines you’ve ingested—and affect every aspect of your health.
“Think of microbes as the worker bees of your body,” explains Dr. Robynne Chutkan, integrative gastroenterologist and microbiome expert. “They perform all kinds of functions, from helping to digest your food, to training your immune system to distinguish between friend and foe. They have the ability to turn your genes on and off, synthesize important vitamins your body isn’t capable of making on its own, aid in detoxification, neutralize cancer-causing compounds, and a wealth of other things.”
If your microbiome becomes damaged or imbalanced, the stage is set for a range of diseases, and not only gastrointestinal issues like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but autoimmune problems including multiple sclerosis (MS), thyroid disorders and even type-1 diabetes.
Follow Dr. Robynne Chutkan’s five simple tips to reduce bloating, improve digestion and boost full-body health by tending to your “gut garden”.
Avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary
The invention of antibiotics was a revolutionary development for medicine, but these days they get overprescribed, with dire consequences for your microbiome. The drug can’t distinguish between the bad and good bacteria, so everything is eliminated, potentially leading to more health issues down the line.
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, discuss with them how essential the course really is. Would your body fight off the infection on its own, without the need for antibiotics? Is it possible that a narrow-spectrum antibiotic, like penicillin, would suffice instead of a more powerful broad-spectrum one?
Eat lots of fibrous plants
What we eat is also feeding our gut, so try to avoid sugary, overly-processed foods. Instead stick to indigestible plant fibers that are high in inulin, like leeks, garlic, onion, artichokes, asparagus, lentils, and oats. Prebiotic fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles are also important, as they feed our gut bacteria while also producing additional live strains that aid digestion.
Skip the hand sanitizer (and even a bath or two!)
Try using fewer hand sanitizers and harsh soaps, and wash with warm water instead. Your delicate microbial ecosystem can easily be disrupted by antibacterial agents that contain substances like triclosan, leading to food allergies and weight gain. Conversely, over-washing with shampoo can encourage an overgrowth of populations naturally found on the skin’s surface, like the fungus malassezia, which causes dandruff.
Get a pet
Surrounding ourselves with a diverse variety of microbes is essential to building a resilient immune system, and buying a pet is one way to ensure we get that exposure. Studies show that children who grow up with household pets suffer from fewer infections, require fewer antibiotics, and are less likely to have allergies in their lifetime.
Plant a garden
By eating organic, home-grown fruits and veggies, you’ll be cultivating your own gut garden at the same time. The earth contains trillions of microbes including mycobacterium vaccae—a soil-dwelling bacteria that triggers the release of serotonin, boosting your mood and reducing stress and anxiety in one fell swoop.