Did you know that there are more bacterial cells in your body than there are human cells? While this may sound alarming to some, keep in mind that not all bacteria is bad. In fact, bacteria is necessary for our survival and our overall health. In recent years, more research has been surfacing about the importance of our microbiome and how a well balanced and diverse microbiome is the key to avoiding disease. Conversely, imbalance in the microbiome can lead to so many illnesses, both chronic and acute.
Since these helpful bacteria play such a large role in our immune system, the vast majority of which lives in our digestive system, it is no wonder that imbalances are usually first seen with common complaints like constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and more. However, gut issues are just the tip-top of the iceberg. We need to remember that our entire body is a bacterial ecosystem. We literally have a microbiome on every surface. And when our bacteria are happy, we are happy too.
Here are a few healthy tips to get your microbiome on the road to vitality.
Sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, pickles, kombucha and more. Fermented foods and drinks contain a variety of helpful bacteria for seeding a strong microbiome. To get the beneficial bacteria, you will need to look for unpasteurized fermented products, as the heat from pasteurization kills many strains. Aim to consume at least a little bit of fermented food daily. Getting a variety of fermented foods in your diet will make an even better impact.
Let me start by saying, please wash the produce you buy from the grocery store. However, if you buy from a farmer’s market, get your vegetables from a CSA, or even grow them yourself, consider skipping the wash. You’ll want to make sure that the food is grown in a pesticide-free environment first, as you want the bacteria from good organic soil. If your produce really needs a wash, use just water. Microbes from the soil make up part of a healthy and diverse microbiome. Bonus points if you grow them yourself because gardeners are frequently exposed to these soil bacteria.
By now, many of us know the benefits of taking a probiotic to improve our microbiome. These pills are a convenient way to seed our bodies with more of the good stuff. However, too much of any single strain can be a bad thing. Even if the probiotic on your shelf contains several strains of bacteria, it is still a good idea to switch to one with different strains every so often. The key to health is a diverse microbiome with countless types of bacteria, not one that is filled with only a few strains.
In today’s world, most of us do not eat the diverse diet of our ancestors. We consume the same foods over and over again, all year round. While this is great if you happen to be craving fruit in the middle of a Wisconsin winter, a diet that focuses on the same ingredients day in and day out reduces the diversity of the microbiome. The bacteria in our gut begin to specialize in the type of diet that we habitually provide to them. The bacteria that don’t thrive on that food die off, and the ones that do spread rapidly. When we fast, we help reign in the strains that may exist in large numbers. This gives the strains with smaller numbers a chance to grow.
Especially after a fast, but really at all times, we should be making an effort to diversify our diets and our microbiome. Thankfully one leads to the other. The next time you are tempted to find new recipes to try, make it a recipe that includes foods you don’t usually eat. This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours in the aisles of the grocery store feeling overwhelmed. Instead, just walk through the produce section and pick up one or two items each time that are new to you. You might be surprised at what you’ve been missing.
But how will we wash our hands? With normal soap, sans the anti-bacterial additives. But how will we kill 99.9% of germs and bacteria? Umm…with an immune system dependent on bacteria, you shouldn’t want to. I don’t care if it is the fanciest hand sanitizer around, it can not distinguish between good and bad germs. Sure, it kills 99.9% of them, but how many of those were the good ones that you want? Just like our guts have a microbiome, so does our skin. Anti-bacterials destroy the beneficial bacteria on our skin. That 0.1% of bacteria left behind is the kind that becomes anti-bacterial resistant, AKA a superbug. These are the kinds of things that even hospitals don’t know how to destroy. Taking a chance that the bacteria left on your skin is one of the beneficial ones is not a chance anyone should take.
Don’t have a dog? Hug your cat instead! Don’t have a cat? Hug whatever pet you do have, or make friends with someone who has one that you can hug often. Pets have their own microbiomes just like humans do. In the same way that microbes get passed around each time you are in contact with another human, this bacterial exchange happens with animals. So squat down and give Fido a belly rub. He’ll love it, and so will your microbiome.
Improving the health and diversity of your microbiome doesn’t have to be rocket science. Everyone can take simple steps to start moving in the right direction today. Remember that health happens in the small decisions we make daily. If your microbiome is out of wack, and you need help addressing your concerns, it is better to get guidance sooner rather than later. The sooner you put your health first, the sooner you can start to feel vibrant and live the life that is waiting for you.