noun mi-cro-bi-o-ta \-bī-ˈōt-ə\
: a microbial community
noun mi-cro-bi-ome \-bī-ˈōm\
: all the microbial genes in a microbiota
I first read about the Sonnenburgs—a husband and wife team of Stanford PhDs studying the gut microbiota—in an article Michael Pollan wrote for the New York Times a couple of years ago. When I learned they had written a book, The Good Gut, I headed to my independent book store on the pub date to pick it up. I thought I would love it. I was right.
Why does the gut excite me so? This nascent field of study will eventually transform human health. Your gut plays a huge roll in your health, your weight, even your mood. Unless Big Pharma packages, commodifies and monopolizes this entire exciting field (which it will attempt to do), I believe much of this transformation / revolution will take place in our kitchens. Feed your gut and it will take care of your health.
Since they began studying the gut microbiota, the Sonnenburgs have changed they way they and their two young children eat. If you read my blog regularly—and thank you so much if you do—it will all sound familiar: unprocessed food; whole fruits and vegetables; homemade sourdough bread; fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and dill pickles; beans they cook from scratch and store in jars in the fridge or freezer (I need to meet these people!); and little meat. No wonder I love this book. I feel validated! In the back, they include a meal plan along with recipes.
The one hundred trillion bacteria that live in our gut evolved along with us over millennia. But as the Sonnenburgs write, the Western gut microbiota face “a mass extinction event.” Why?
1. The Western diet of processed food. Our microbes are starving. As the Sonnenburgs write, “If your gut bacteria were able to walk through your average grocery store tasked with finding something to eat, they would face the equivalent of humans trying to find food in a Home Depot.”
2. Overuse of antibiotics. We poison and kill our starving gut bacteria with antibiotics, most of which are broad-spectrum, meaning they kill the good bacteria along with the bad. Some of our microbes return after a round of antibiotics; others never recover. And in fact, we’re killing off microbes before we even understand their function. (I need to add another definition at the top of this post: hubris.) And while we wipe out all these bacteria, we also inadvertently nurture superbugs.
The stats for antibiotic use floored me. Americans consume more of them than anyone else (that fact did not floor me): “In 2010, doctors handed out no fewer than 258 million courses of antibiotics, roughly eight and a half prescriptions per ten people living in the United States.”
Now I am not saying you should never take antibiotics and the authors never do either. But we must weigh the decision much more carefully than we currently do.
3. Overly sterilized homes. We nearly pathologically kill bacteria in this country. Bleach, antimicrobial soaps and hand sanitizers render our homes “as sterile as an operating room.” This sterility results in less contact with microbes.
4. Increase in Caesarian births. In the womb, babies have a blank slate devoid of microbes. Born vaginally, they get their first dose of “mother-approved bacteria” as they travel along the birth canal, inheriting their mother’s microbiota. This dose of microbes helps coat the intestinal wall, creating a barrier and keeping out bad microbes that cause illness. C-section babies miss out on this inheritance. Different—and less beneficial microbes—colonize the guts of C-sections babies and in the US, more than a third of babies are born by C-section (!). Don’t beat yourself up if you delivered via C-section. Even the children of the authors were Caesarian births. Sometimes C-sections are necessary—but sometimes not.
5. Decrease in breast-feeding. Breast milk contains human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), the third most common component found in this superfood. But humans cannot actually digest HMOs. So why does mom make so much of it? To feed baby’s microbiota.
The Sonnenburgs offer a number of recommendations, each of which “is rooted in the scientific work performed by [their] lab and those of others in the field during this past decade of unprecedented microbiota enlightenment.”
1. Deliver vaginally and breast feed your kids. If you must delivery via Caesarean, the authors suggest discussing with your doctor inoculating your baby with a vaginal swab after delivery. As for breast milk, I can’t sugar coat that one. Nothing compares to it. Again, don’t beat yourself up if you use formula. We all do the best we can.
2. Use antibiotics sparingly. If you do take antibiotics, eat probiotic-rich foods during and after treatment. If you clean up your diet—including eating more fermented food—you will improve your health, reduce illnesses and thus have less of a need for antibiotics.
3. Play in the dirt, get a pet and go easy on the bleach. In cities, where most of us live, we don’t come into contact with soil and its resident microbes. Planting a garden or even a window box gives you a chance to get your hands dirty and encounter more microbes. We planted some vegetables over the weekend, partially so I can dig in the dirt.
Children who grow up with pets suffer from fewer colds and allergies and require fewer antibiotics. Bootsy brings microbes in from outside that benefit us and we actually share common microbes.
Use less toxic ingredients to clean your home, such as vinegar, castile soap and lemon juice. I make vinegar from fruit scraps or let kombucha ferment to the point of vinegar.
4. Feed your microbiota. The Sonnenburgs provide four tenets of a microbiota-friendly diet:
- Eat lots of MACS: microbiota accessible carbohydrates. These complex carbohydrates differ vastly from simple carbohydrates like refined white flour and sugar. Gut microbes require a lot of dietary fiber, which contains mostly complex carbohydrates. You’ll find these in fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes and unrefined whole grains.
- Eat less red meat. Certain microbes convert L-carnitine—found in red meat—into trimethylamine (TMI), which when oxidized becomes trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). “High levels of TMAO increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and other cardiac events.” People who eat a plant-based diet harbor fewer of these TMA-producing microbes.
- Eat less saturated fat. Saturated fats reduce microbiota diversity. The Sonnenburgs recommend eating olive oil and avocados. (This is beginning to sound very Mediterranean.)
- Eat your microbes. And here we arrive at one of my favorite messages in the book. To consume your microbes, you could buy pricey probiotic supplements, however most companies manufacturing these probiotics stick with strains they know are safe—the ones found in fermented foods, which we have eaten for thousands of years. However, everyone has a unique microbiota and a one-size-fits-all commercial probiotic will not work for everyone:
“Presently, our understanding of the microbiota is not complete enough to predict what specific effects a particular probiotic could have on an individual’s microbiota. For this reason, we feel that fermented foods, which contain a diverse collection of microorganisms, offer the best chance of encountering a microbe that will have a positive effect.”
OMG, I think they just prescribed yogurt and kimchi 😉