Me, Myself...and My Trillions of Microbes: The Forgotten Organ
Who knew that when our healthy hippie friends said things like "it'll make your tummy happy!" or "your insides will thank you!" they were right on the money? This may sound strange...but every time you eat, you are not eating just for yourself. You are eating for the trillions of bacterial buddies (3 to 5 pounds of them actually) in your gut as well. These permanent residents in our gut are called our gut microbiota. They, as well as all of the genes they possess, are referred to as the gut microbiome. We should always think twice about what we put into our bodies, and this time the science claims that a lot more is at stake than getting the infamous food coma, or an "ugh, I shouldn't have eaten that" moment. We now have to consider what we eat for the health of our gut bacteria, because their health has enormous implications on ours. Over countless generations our microbes have co-evolved with us, and while we provide food and lodge for them in our digestive tract, they've developed methods to help regulate just about every body system we have. The gut microbiome provides a whole new perspective on health, through the avenue of our gut.
No wonder they call it the forgotten organ.
"only 1/3 of our cells are human cells, and only 10% of our genes are human".
Photo: by Gaby D'Allesandro
How Much of Us is "Human"?
It's wise to have a healthy appreciation for your gut microbiome, which really means the entire population of bacteria in your gut (microbiota), and the genes they carry (genome). After all, at least two-thirds of your total cell population are microbial cells. And if we were to ration how much of us is genetically "human", their genes trump ours by multiple factors, accounting for about 90% of our genetic makeup. That's right, only 1/3 of our cells are human cells, and only 10% of our genes are human. Our human genes are a needle in a haystack compared to the genes contributed to us by our microbes! When this information really sinks in, it seems silly not to consider the role they must play in our physiology. To even be present in our bodies without mounting a massive immune response every moment they're here is a feat that speaks of their incredible cunningness and authority over our physiology. With that in mind, let's begin by touching up on what recent research tells shows out microbiota can influence.
Research on the gut microbiome is just beginning to blossom, describing microbes as huge contributors to:
---Blood sugar regulation
---Fat tissue production/usage
And everything in between. They take part in regulating inflammation for chronic autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowl diseases. They can contribute to or help prevent asthma and allergies. They help modulate insulin sensitivity, which is critical to avoiding metabolic syndrome, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. For those suffering from psychological disorders, they play a role in the production of many hormones such as serotonin.
And it makes sense, bacteria made a home in our body thousands of years ago, so it's logical that over evolutionary time they learned to communicate with every part of us.
How do they coordinate all the different parts of our body? By producing byproducts called Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs). When scientists discovered that SCFAs could bind to receptors in our body and regulate metabolic reactions, they realized that these receptors (called Free Fatty Acid Receptors, or FFARs) were everywhere. And I mean everywhere. From the gut to the pancreas, from the heart to the brain, the muscles, and more. Gut microbes learned to feed on the molecules we cannot digest, and with that provide nutrition and byproducts that can beneficially regulate our body.
Can you guess what they eat? Fiber.
Eating Our Way Out of Disease:
Fiber, the part of food that most medical professionals didn't even classify as a nutrient before. Something who's only purpose seemed to be providing some "roughage" in the digestive system, to help people stay regular. Fiber wasn't considered a nutrient because the human body cannot digest it, so we can't absorb anything from it. Luckily, our microbes can! Fiber is the essential food our microbes use to produce the SCFAs used to regulate our body. They also use fiber to produce countless nutrients we rely on, that we cannot make ourselves.
How do we get fiber, then? Please don't raid your local grocery story for some generic fiber bars that are overdosed with processed fiber materials, and don't bother buying fiber supplements like inulin, although some of these can be effective. Go to the main source! Good ol' fashioned plant-based wholefoods. Fiber is the carbohydrate found exclusively in plant foods: fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, grains, seeds...if it comes from the ground, it's got fiber in it.
Research is showing that for those consuming the typical Western diet, microbial diversity of species is reduced by the hundreds. It's survival of the fittest for our microbes, and the Western diet has created a harsh fiber-deficient environment, that has flip-flopped the ratios of bacterial species from what it's been for thousands of years. Diverse microbes that contribute to health have become underpopulated or extinct, and those that can survive on processed carbohydrates and simple sugars are thriving, leading to metabolic disease and obesity.
Starvation of our microbes has lead to a huge loss in diversity of our gut microbiota, leading to an imbalance called dysbiosis. How can we restore the balance of our gut microbiota? Seems like a complicated question, since research has shown that every single person in the world has a slightly different balance of microbes in their gut. But studies show that it's not so much the species in specific that's vital, but the products they produce that are important. Therefore, diversity beats specificity here, and restoring microbial diversity leads to beneficial regulation in our bodies. The first step in the right direction may be more simple than we suspected. Feed our gut microbes to restore diverse populations! EAT MORE FIBER. Eat more plant-based wholefoods.
The most recent FDA recommendation for fiber is 25-35g per day. This is at the most only about one-fourth of our ancestral dietary fiber intake of 100-150g per day (this amount was averaged by observing the fiber intake of rural and indigenous people from the more Eastern parts of the world, who still consume close to what our ancestral diet was like). To make matters worse, most Americans don't even meet the recommended value. The USDA has averaged Americans' intake of fiber at about 15g per day, with 30% of that fiber coming from heavily processed food sources. The complex microbial balance in our gut that took thousands of years to develop, has been drastically changed, in just the past 50 years. Our gut microbes are literally starving to death, thanks to the radical change in our diets, which include drastic increases in the amount of non-fibrous animal products we eat, and processed foods and drinks we consume. Our gut no longer recognizes the majority of the American diet, and this is a problem.
First Little Steps for BIG Changes:
1. Drop Processed Food/Drinks: We can begin by simply removing processed foods completely from our diets. Try this for ten days. Anyone can do anything for ten days! No processed drinks, no processed foods, eat whole foods only. This is much easier than you think, especially for people who have access to awesome produce stores like Whole Foods Market, Raleys, Sprouts, Costco, and more. These stores have organic snack sections in which you can buy wholefood based snacks like dried fruit, nut/seed snacks, and crisped veggies snacks. This will satisfy that crunch/sweet/salty craving from the snacks you're used to, while upping your fiber intake. These By process of elimination, our plant consumption should make a huge leap.
My favorite wholefood snacks are:
---Dried mango slices
---Dried medjool dates
---Dried unsweetened cherries
---Crispy garbanzo beans (you can bake these yourself!)
---baked kale chips
---baked snap peas
2. Eat More Plants: Many people are trying methods such as Meatless Mondays (completely plant-based wholefood meals for a full day=completely fiber-based meals for a whole day), the 90/10 or 80/20 method (in which 90% of your meals are plant-based, or 80%), or taking recipes and flipping them (a great example is taking the usual family pulled-pork sandwich recipe and replacing the pulled pork with BBQ seasoned jackfruit, for example).
GREAT Wholefood Meat-Substitutes:
---Jackfruit: (Resembles pulled pork in texture, great for sandwiches/tacos.)
---Tempeh: (Can resemble beef texture when grated, and bacon when cut thinly. Use for beef, bacon, burger substitutes) ***Great tempeh recipe here***
---Black/Kidney Beans: (Can resemble burger and great burger substitute)
---Garbanzo Beans: (Can resemble tuna in texture and flavor when spiced with mustard/lemon/green onion. Great tuna sandwich substitute) ***Great chickpea sandwich recipe here***
---Portabella mushrooms (savory flavor, used often as burger substitute)
Every day is a new day to make a healthy decision. Our bodies are remarkable at healing themselves, provide the tools needed to do exactly that.
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(n.d.). Retrieved February 03, 2018, from https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/dietary-fiber.htmlintake: https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400530/pdf/DBrief/12_fiber_intake_0910.pdf