By now you probably know how important your gut health is to your overall health. If not, you need to! Eighty percent of your immune system is in your microbiome, your body’s bacteria, which help your body with just about every process, including digesting your food, thinking clearly, and even maintaining a healthy weight.
Your microbiome is housed in your gut and the other openings of your body, such as your mouth, your genitals, and your nose. When your gut microbiome is balanced, you stay healthy, you are in a good mood, and you have a lot of energy. When your gut microbiome is out of balance, you are setting yourself up for a host of health issues, including weight gain, diabetes, brain fog, and cancer.
Unfortunately, an unbalanced gut microbiome, or dysbiosis, is common today. Thanks to years of following diets high in processed foods and sugar, conventionally raised meat and dairy products full of hormones, plus rounds of antibiotics, too many antacids, and chronic stress, most of us have impaired gut health. I have also said for many years that our country’s C-section rate and formula-feeding contribute to a dysbiotic state in children right from the start, because babies need exposure to good bacteria in the birth canal and in breast milk to seed their guts. In fact, the allergies, autoimmunity, anxiety, and depression that we see at increasing rates in children today are due, in part, to impaired gut health.
Your Genes Don’t Matter, But Your Gut Microbiome’s Genes Do!
As a society, we have been quick to place the blame for everything from our weight to our moods on our genes. We say things like “She can drink wine and eat chocolate every day and not gain weight because she is French.” The truth is human beings all have similar DNA. So why is it that some people are healthy when they consume chocolate every day while others maintain a strict Paleo diet and struggle with digestive symptoms or worse? It’s because, unlike our genes, our microbiome’s genes are vastly different.
The good news is that you can change your gut microbiome. You see, the average lifespan of a bacterium in your microbiome is 20 minutes! So, you have the opportunity every time you eat to begin to change the population of your gut microbiome. This is good news because it means that rather than having to subscribe to theories such as the Paleo diet, which assumes our genes evolve so slowly that we all need to eat like cavemen, we can begin to change our gut microbiome (and thus its genes) one meal at a time and even achieve a healthy gut very quickly.
Improve Your Gut Microbiome Today for the “4Rs”
There are a number of factors that contribute to the health of your gut microbiome, including your environment, the amount of exercise and sleep you get, and of course, stress. But the number one factor that determines what microbes live in your gut (and which ones die off) is your diet.
In Functional Medicine, there is a very successful protocol called the 4Rs, which stands for Remove, Replace, Reinoculate, and Repair. There are many resources for learning more about the 4 R’s. I like Raphael Kellman, M.D.’s book, The Microbiome Diet: The Scientifically Proven Way to Restore Your Gut Health and Achieve Permanent Weight Loss.
The beautiful thing about the 4Rs protocol is that it doesn’t have to be followed in order. Once you remove the processed foods and toxins from your diet, you can start doing all of the remaining 3 steps together. Unless you suffer from a serious digestive disorder or other condition, you can follow the 4Rs on your own. Or, find a practitioner who can tailor the protocol to your specific needs.
Here are my suggestions for following the 4Rs and improving your gut microbiome starting today:
- Eat the Right Foods. Your gut microbiome responds to what you feed it. When you regularly eat a variety of healthy, non-processed foods, your microbiome becomes programmed to work for you. The more varied your diet, the more flexible your microbiome becomes, allowing for that occasional dessert.
- Take a high-quality probiotic. Nearly everyone can benefit from supplementing with a good quality probiotic. Probiotics help maintain your gut’s ecosystem as well as the ecosystem of your respiratory tract and urogenital tract. Also, try to limit your use of antibiotics. While they are necessary sometimes and can be life-saving, most antibiotics are over-prescribed. Be sure to consult with your doctor about whether you or your children need an antibiotic, and always take your probiotics during treatment to re-seed your gut with healthy bacteria.
- Support your Digestion. Unless you know you have high stomach acid, stop taking antacids! Many people have low stomach acid but think they have too much and take antacids. Supplement with a digestive enzyme. This can help you digest your food better and get rid of your symptoms, such as gas, bloating and heartburn. Glutamine, an amino acid (a building block of protein), can also help to rebuild and maintain your digestive tract and support proper digestion. You may also want to try HCL if you know you have low stomach acid. Or, you could simply try drinking lemon and water or 1 Tbsp of apple cider vinegar in a little water before each meal to see if your symptoms improve.
- Get into a relaxed state. One of the most important factors to healing your gut is your own consciousness. Your gut is your second brain. If your microbiome is out of balance, you may feel anxious, depressed, or tired. You may also suffer from memory problems or brain fog. In addition to eating the right foods, try to get into a meditative state prior to eating. Do this by removing all stressors, including stressful people and conversations. If you are eating with others, try not to speak excessively, or talk about negative subjects. Every time you sit down to eat, take a deep breath, pause and give thanks to all of the plants, animals, and people who helped create your food, including God, then consecrate the energy you will get from your food to a good cause, or to someone you love. This activity can help transform even unhealthy fast food.
15 Ways to Optimize Your Gut Bacteria for Optimal Weight Loss
When it comes to losing weight, most diets focus on calorie reduction and exercise. While eating less and exercising more will usually result in weight-loss, Dr. Kellman says that if you get your microbiome healthy, you will lose weight. It’s all about correcting the overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria, which is making you crave the wrong foods and triggering inflammation. This makes sense because when you change your gut bacteria, you change how your body produces and metabolizes energy.
This also explains why so many people lose weight only to gain it right back because the bad bacteria are still present in your gut. The bad bacteria remember when you were fat, and they want to continue to live, so they trigger cravings for the foods that feed them.
In addition to the steps I outline above, here are 15 more ways to set up your gut for weight loss:
- Sweat every day. Your gut bacteria operate best when you exercise regularly. That’s because regular exercise promotes biodiversity of your gut flora. Research shows that exercise actually increases the good bacteria in your gut!
- Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep has been associated with obesity. Now, research shows that one of the reasons sleep deprivation causes weight gain is because it significantly changes your gut flora. In fact, after just two nights of sleep deprivation the gut flora of patients resembled those of people who are obese. Now, here’s the catch, your gut flora can affect your sleep patterns, so in order to get a good night’s sleep, you must improve your gut flora.
- Get dirty. While being clean is fine, overly sterile environments don’t promote biodiversity of your gut bacteria. Go ahead and get dirty. And, skip the hand sanitizer.
- Find time to de-stress. Research shows that prolonged periods of stress can impair your gut bacteria and make you susceptible to infection.
- Breastfeed Your Baby. While breastfeeding can help moms lose their baby weight, this one is for your child. Babies are born with nearly sterile and bacteria-free guts. Breastfeeding your child for the first year (or as long as you can) helps to colonize your baby’s gut flora. And, your breast milk actually nourishes the bacteria to allow it to become established.
- Eliminate artificial sweeteners. While the link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain is not clear, one thing research shows is that artificial sweeteners alter the gut bacteria in a way that causes glucose intolerance.
- Eat the Nordic way. Arne Astrup, Jennie Brand-Miller, and Christian Bitz, leaders in obesity research and authors of The Nordic Way cookbook, suggest eating skyr, whole-grain rye breads, and wild foods, including herbs, greens, nuts, and berries. They also suggest that replacing wheat with oats, rye, and barley, and eating seafood, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, clams, mussels, and even seaweed, helps improve gut flora.
- Make preparing your meals a ritual. Every culture has rituals around food, but with our busy lifestyles, we have all but forgotten them. Turning your meal prep into a ritual – and it doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming – helps to bring awareness and intention to our meal and meal time. This relaxes you and sets you up for better digestion.
- Get your microbiome analyzed. If you want to know what is going on in your gut flora, you cantake a test that will give you a snapshot. But remember, your microbiome is changing all the time with every meal.
- Take the gut-brain test. Your gut has its own nervous system – the enteric nervous system (ENS). Integrative neurologist Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary, author of The Prime, says that the answer to losing weight spontaneously is to make your gut smarter by bringing your enteric nervous system back online and in control of your food choices. To find out how well your gut-brain is working, take the Gut IQ Test.
- Remove the sugar and processed foods from your diet. Refined carbohydrates, sugar (including alcohol), and processed foods get absorbed quickly into your small intestine without any help from your microbes. That means your gut microbes stay hungry, so they begin snacking on the cells that line your intestines, causing what we call Leaky Gut. Your intestinal lining is meant to be a strong barrier between your gut and the rest of your body. When your intestinal wall becomes leaky, particles of food enter your bloodstream, causing your immune system to attack them, and ultimately your own tissues. This leads to inflammation and a whole cascade of conditions, including autoimmunity. Sugar also feeds organisms like Candida Albican, which also attacks your intestinal wall and can lead to a systemic Candida infection.
- Get your carbohydrates from vegetables and low-sugar fruits. Eating a lot of leafy green vegetables will help plant your gut with healthy and diverse bacteria. Dr. Kellman also recommends eating radishes, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, jicama, asparagus, carrots, and, of course, garlic and turmeric. Be sure to get a balance of healthy fats and protein with each meal as well.
- Include fermented foods in your diet. Fermented foods seed your gut with healthy bacteria. Eat sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kefir, yogurt (not processed), and kombucha. These foods are rich in prebiotics.
- Try a food elimination diet to determine if you have any food allergies. Do you often have cramping, gas, or stomach pain after eating? You may have a food sensitivity or allergy. The most common food allergies or sensitivities are to cow’s milk, soy, peanuts (nuts), corn, eggs, and wheat (gluten). Some people find they feel even better if they eliminate all grains, including oats, quinoa, and spelt. But start with wheat at the very least. Do this for a few weeks and see if your symptoms improve. Also stay away from artificial sweeteners, alcohol, and coffee!
- Drink tea. Evidence shows that polyphenols increase healthy microbes (probiotics) and reduce harmful pathogens in your gut, which helps to keep your microbiome in optimal balance. Tea is one of the richest sources of polyphenols – healthy prebiotics that feed the healthy bugs in your gut. Tea polyphenols also have anti-viral properties that reduce harmful pathogens. The polyphenols in tea help you digest your food faster, while suppressing hunger cravings and allowing you to poop more. Research shows that the polyphenols in black tea decrease your gut’s ability to absorb fats and sugars. And studies show that green tea catechins prevent the absorption of triglycerides and cholesterol, which increases your body’s ability to excrete fat.
How a Healthy Microbiome May Prevent Coronavirus Infections
When your gut is healthy, you have a much better chance of staving off infections. So, it makes sense that a healthy gut microbiome could prevent you from severe COVID-19 infection. In addition, people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity have the worst outcomes when they become ill from COVID-19 and other infections. And these conditions are associated with negative changes in the composition of the gut microbiome, possibly from medications as well as diet.
A preliminary study showed that a less-than-optimal gut microbiome was highly correlated with proinflammatory cytokines and that certain gut microbiota can predispose individuals to severe COVID-19. The reason may be because the coronavirus enters the body by binding to the ACE2 enzyme, which plays an important role in the regulation of intestinal inflammation and affects the microbes that play a role in diseases of the heart and lungs. This may mean that a healthy gut microbiome prevents some COVID-19 patients from experiencing the cytokine storm seen in severe cases.
Like everything else, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to your microbiome. You may be a strict vegetarian, eat the Paleo way or fall somewhere in between. The key is to keep supporting your microbiome with the foods that are healthy for you.
How have you taken measures to heal your gut? Do you notice a difference in your overall health? Please share your comments below.