Your body is a host to a universe of microorganisms. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses live on – and in – every inch of your body.
Trillions of bacteria live in your gut alone. In fact, these bacteria actually outnumber the human cells of your body by ten to one. But there’s no reason to get nervous. This is actually a good thing.
As you might expect, these tiny organisms have a big impact on your body’s functions. In fact, some biologists consider the gut microbiota (the term used to describe a population of microbes in the human body) to be another organ—just like your brain, pancreas, or liver.
Because so many of these critters live in your digestive system, they are key players in your metabolism. “There’s an order of magnitude more bugs in our gut than there are cells in our bodies, so it’s not very difficult to imagine that they would have a profound impact on metabolic balance and metabolic activity,” says Christopher Newgard, a metabolism researcher at North Carolina’s Duke University.
Scientists have yet to identify all the species of bacteria in our gut. Nor do they completely understand how they interact with our metabolism—and, in turn, influence metabolic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. But this is a hot area of research for microbiologists.
For instance, the ambitious Human Microbiome Project exists purely to analyze the role of the microbiome in our health. As a recent New York Times article reports: The microbiome should be thought of as a “garden we tend” rather than a frightening invasion.
Researchers at the University of Maryland set out to identify the links between these microbes and obesity. They studied the gut microbes of 310 adult members of the Amish community. (They chose the Amish because their community is genetically closed and its members share very similar lifestyles, reducing the number of factors that might influence health differences among them.)
The Maryland researchers discovered that 22 bacterial species and 4 specific groups of bacteria were either positively or negatively correlated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and diabetes—a cluster of medical conditions collectively known as metabolic syndrome. The researchers concluded that having too few or too many of these particular gut microbes seems to contribute to obesity, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and certain cancers.
This study adds to an ever-growing body of knowledge about gut bacteria and metabolism. Previous research has shown, for example, that certain bacteria are more populous in the obese (both mice and humans), whereas other bacteria are prevalent in lean mice and people. Moreover, the researchers found that the bacterial composition in the gut can improve or worsen insulin resistance (both in mice and humans).
In addition, scientists have found that the bacterial strains in obese and insulin-resistant people can trigger chronic, low-grade inflammation. Long-term inflammation can damage healthy tissues and lead to a variety of chronic diseases — such as Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and many others.
The modern Western lifestyle—and the health problems which arise from it—shed light on the changing relationship between our bodies and our microbiota.
Writer Lauren Gravitz notes in the journal Nature: “Humans and the microbiome … have co-evolved for millennia. But lately we have been messing with the delicate balance between our flora and ourselves by eating more fats and sugars, by washing with antibacterial soap, and by taking antibiotics at the faintest hint of infection. This shift in behavior has coincided with an increase in the incidence of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, both of which are rising at a pace that cannot be down to genetics alone.”
The health of your microbial population depends on a number of factors, including your environment. While there isn’t much you can do about the dietary, sanitary, and medical habits of the people around you, you can do plenty to promote your own good gut health. Here are just a few suggestions…
Avoid sugar and other refined carbohydrates, which cause detrimental changes in gut flora and contribute to metabolic syndrome.
Don’t use antibacterial soaps or other antibacterial household products. These kill the good bugs along with the bad ones inside you — as do antibiotics! Take them only when your illness truly calls for them.
Prebiotics are foods and ingredients which stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system. The top 10 prebiotic foods are:
1. raw chicory root
2. raw Jerusalem artichoke
3. raw dandelion greens
4. raw garlic
5. raw leek
6. raw or cooked onion
7. raw asparagus
8. raw wheat bran
9. raw banana
10. flax seed
In addition, consume more foods that contain probiotics or “beneficial bacteria.” Some simple sources of probiotics are fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh, kimchi, and kombucha tea.
For help in choosing gut-healthy yogurt, see my article “Not All Yogurts Are Created Equal.” For instructions on making your own delicious, healthful, and inexpensive yogurt, see “Better Yogurt Than You Could Ever Buy.”
What is your experience with prebiotic and probiotic foods?
Do you have some favorites? Do you take a probiotic supplement?
Please share your thoughts, tips and favorites [Below], so we all can benefit from them.
Happy eating and good health to you—and to your trillions of inhabitants!
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