by Alanna Collen
Allergies, autoimmunity, digestive problems, obesity and mental health conditions are increasingly common and they're all being linked to a disrupted gut microbiome, the collection of microbes living in and on our body.
So what can we do to nurture a microbial community that keeps us, and our children, happy and healthy? Here are the seven keys to looking after your microbes, your body, and your mind.
1. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics.
Antibiotics save lives and limbs, but they're not always the right medicine. In fact, the CDC estimates that around half of all antibiotics prescribed by doctors are unnecessary, often because an infection is caused by a virus, not bacteria. Antibiotics rarely target only the culprit — they also kill off beneficial species that keep you healthy and resist further infection.
If you think you or your child needs antibiotics, ask your doctor:
Are you sure my infection is caused by bacteria?
Might it get better on its own?
What’s the risk of not taking antibiotics for my illness?
2. Eat more plant-based foods.
Our ancestors ate far more plants and far less meat than many of us do now. Our gut microbes expect — and love! — plants. In fact, fiber has been shown to be beneficial in promoting the healthy bacteria that protect the lining in our gut.
Peas, beans, grains, vegetables, and some fruits are especially high in fiber and are great for good gut health. If you already suffer from digestive troubles, be careful with fiber — you may need to increase your intake slowly.
3. Eat whole foods.
We love to juice our fruits and vegetables — it feels so virtuous to drink a green juice packed full of vitamins and minerals. But don’t forget that by juicing, we dramatically reduce the fiber content. Fiber is just as important as the vitamins, so try to eat whole foods and save the healthy drinks for treats or snacks.
Whole grains are high in fiber too, but refined grains lose much of the benefit. Generally speaking, the whiter the grain and the finer the flour, the lower the fiber content will be.
4. Give birth vaginally if this option is available to you.
The first thing a baby encounters when it enters the world through the birth canal is a lovely coat of vaginal microbes. These bacteria protect the baby from skin and gut infections, help it to digest its new diet of milk, and set it up for a thriving gut microbiome.
Babies born by Cesarean section miss out on these microbes, taking on bacteria from mom’s skin and the hospital environment instead. We don’t always get a choice in how we give birth, but if possible, opt for a natural delivery. If not, don’t worry — there are plenty of other ways to nurture your baby’s microbiome. If giving birth vaginally is not available to you, one way to give your newborn baby a dose of your microbes is to swab the vaginal microbiome with gauze and transferring it to your baby after delivery. Please talk to your doctor about this first.
5. Breastfeed babies if possible.
Breast milk contains oligosaccharides — long-chain sugars that babies can’t digest, but that are tailored to the developing microbial community of the gut.
These sugars block disease-causing bacteria and feed beneficial species, which then help babies’ immune systems to know what to worry about (nasty bugs), and what to ignore (pollen, new foods, and our own cells, for example). Both formula feeding and mixed feeding promote a different microbial community from exclusive breast-feeding.
If breastfeeding is not an option, don't worry. Aim to help your child develop a healthy microbiome through a plant-based high-fiber diet once he or she is on solid food. Talk to your pediatrician first.
6. Cut down on soaps and cosmetics.
Your gut is not the only part of you that’s coated in microbes. Each of us has many thousands of bacteria covering every square inch of our skin, which form the first line of defence against any harmful microbes.
Washing with soaps alters these communities, favoring the hardiest species that may not be the best for us. Skin looks after itself if you give it a chance — try a soap-less shower and you might find it makes little difference to how clean you feel.
Make-up also changes the skin microbiome, by feeding different bacteria from those that consume the natural oils produced by your skin. Over the long-term, daily foundation can alter your microbiome.
7. Ditch antibacterial cleaning products.
No one likes the thought of harmful bacteria lingering on the kitchen surfaces or in the toilet, but antibacterial cleaning products don’t help us to get rid of them in the home any better than non-antibacterial cleaners. Soaps and warm water clean up bacteria very efficiently, just by removing the food residues and grime where bacteria grow.
Each of these seven keys can help us to develop a microbiome that works for us, helping us to fight infections, maintain a healthy weight, keep happy, and prevent allergies and autoimmune diseases. So if you want to look after your body and mind, don’t forget your microbes!