How to Feed Your Microbiome
You depend on the bugs living in your gut to keep you in working order, and they depend on you to feed them the nutrients they need to survive.
Teamwork makes the dreamwork.
If you starve your microbes, they’ll feed on your insides like little microbial zombies.
We all have a mucus layer lining the inner wall of our gut. It contains slippery molecules called mucin glycans that form the barrier that is kept intact at all costs by our intestinal cells. It protects us from infection and inappropriate inflammation like the kind we see in autoimmunity. In the absence of appropriate food, bacteria will turn to these mucin glycans for sustenance and degrade our precious protective layer (1). This is presumably a key step in developing gut permeability AKA “leaky gut”, the ideal landscape to foster autoimmune disease. Not surprisingly, it’s been shown that Inflammatory Bowel Disease patients have higher numbers of these zombie bacteria than their healthy counterparts (2).
If you nourish your microbes, they will nourish you in astonishing ways.
If you haven’t already, go back and check out Microbiome 101 for a summary of their marvelous functions. From digestion to cognition to hormones to immunity to metabolism, our microbes are behind the scenes making us healthier. They can’t be expected to do all that on an empty stomach!
Some tips to get you started
1. Practice good “Food Hygiene”.
This is a naturopathic technique to optimize digestion so that by the time food gets to your gut bugs it’s served up just the way they like it. Here’s some food hygiene highlights:
Get into the mood for food. Slow down for a sec and appreciate what’s on your plate. If it looks and smells good your body will get primed for it, producing saliva with digestive enzymes in your mouth, and acids and other digestive juices to get ready for it throughout the digestive tract. Take a few breaths before you dig in.
Aim for a calm environment, both internal and external. Your nervous system sets the scene for digestion. Can you imagine the difference between shoveling down your lunch while responding to work emails versus slowly savoring a meal while looking out of your window and watching the weather? Your nervous system can tell the difference and prefers the latter.
Chew your food. If you wolf down your food without chewing, it’s more likely to arrive in your intestines in poorly digested chunks. Your healthy gut bugs do not like this, but the pathogenic ones do. Chewing thoroughly creates an environment in your gut where healthy microbes can flourish and crowd out the bad ones.
2. Know that a diet rich in plant-based fiber (VEGETABLES!) will nourish gut microbes.
Vegetables are your microbe fuel, this is their favorite meal. I love vegetables for so many reasons, but the primary nutrient that’s pertinent here is fiber. Fiber is a complex plant-based nutrient that is largely indigestible by us, but a preferential food for gut bugs.
Of note for this topic are the prebiotics, a type of fiber known to benefit the bugs associated with good health. Garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, and artichokes commonly fall in this category. There are so many types of fiber, and in this overview I recommend to simply get as much veggie variety as you can, then pay attention to how your body feels after eating it. We each have unique microbiomes, with preference to different vegetables. When you look down at your plate, I want you to see at least one thing that can feed your microbes.
Fun side note: A brand new study has demonstrated that a high intake of dietary fiber is associated with a decrease in a protein called zonulin, the main suspect thought to induce gut permeability. (3)
3. Know that a diet rich in refined carbohydrates will starve your gut microbes.
Refined carbohydrates are sugars and starches that start as a natural whole food, but are then processed in a way that strips them of their nutrients and fibers down to rapidly digestible simple sugars. I’m looking at you bagels, cookies, and donuts. They may be delicious and filling, but they don’t do a thing for your microbes. The refined carbs in processed and high-sugar foods have no need for your microbes to digest them. Most are broken down and absorbed long before they reach your gut, leaving your microbes hangry enough to start munching on your insides. That means please pretty please get the sugary drinks, fluffy breads, and sweet treats out of your regular diet. Your future self will be so grateful for this special treatment.
Caveat … if you are suffering from a flare of IBD or another autoimmune condition, you have likely found that fibrous foods are aggravating, and refined carbs are much easier to digest. How frustrating is this paradox?! Certainly a topic for another Gut Central article …
There’s so much more to discuss here! Gluten, dairy, food sensitivities, probiotics, prebiotics, fiber. I’ll get to it all eventually but please leave a comment to let me know what you want to learn about first!