One of the surprise findings of the Human Genome Project, that ambitious international effort to map human’s genetic code, is that, by a factor of ten, each individual is made more of bacterial cells than of human cells. Scientists are just beginning to understand the health implications of this, especially as it relates to the gut and digestive process, the so-called “gut microbiome.” Already, imbalances in the gut biome have been linked to obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
And beyond the confines of the laboratory, scores of health-conscious individuals are discovering that taking care of the gut microbiome just might be the key to a pain-free, healthier, and happier life. Evidence does point to the legions of bacteria in each person’s gut being a unique mix, as individual as human appearance and personality. But still, there is consensus on a few things you can do, or not do, to increase your odds of keeping your gut microbiome healthy, and as a result, improving your quality of life. Here are five:
1. Avoid Sugar: There are good guys and bad guys swarming in your gut microbiome. The good guys help you digest more efficiently, turning food stuff into energy and healthy human cells, while the bad guys do the opposite, often causing stomach upset and disease as they operate. Many of the bad bacteria and fungi, like Candida albicans, thrive and multiply on a diet of sugar. When you cut back on the sweet stuff, you cut off their energy supply and protect your gut microbiome.
2. Avoid Antibiotics: You’re probably already aware of the threat to public health that the overuse of antibiotics poses by increasing the population of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Another ill effect of these medicines is internal; while they are very good at killing the bacteria that makes you sick, antibiotics also take out unrelated, healthy bacteria in your gut. This is not to say that antibiotics are never appropriate, just that before asking for them, you should make sure through tests and consultations with your doctor that your infection is truly bacterial and the drugs are necessary.
3. Don’t Avoid Dirt: As humans have moved away from rural lifestyles and into the mores sterile environments of the cities and suburbs, the exposure to healthy microbes has diminished, leaving more people with allergies and chronic diseases of the gut, like IBS. So stop hiding out in an air conditioned mall and take a hike outdoors or take your kids to the playground; grow your own tomatoes (no pesticides please) and eat them straight off the vine; get yourself a pet and play fetch in the backyard; wash your dishes by hand instead of in the dishwasher. In short, let more microbes into your life and, as a result, into your gut.
4. Sleep Well: Microbes need their rest too. Studies have shown that seven to eight hours of quality sleep a night helps create a healthy gut microbiome balance. A good night’s sleep also reduces stress, and high stress levels have been proven to damage the gut microbiome, as anyone who has suffered from a nervous tummy can attest.
5. Exercise: Even moderate exercise has been shown to increase the healthy bacteria of the gut biome. And if you do your brisk walk outside, you’ll also be exposing yourself to natural bacteria to add to your positive gut microbiome balance.
Perhaps the most startling finding of the massive Human Genome Project was that humans are, at our very core, hosts, composed of ten times more bacterial cells than human cells. According to the latest scientific studies, there are positive, common sense steps to take to be a good host, especially when it comes to the gut microbiome. The benefit of doing so is a healthier and more active life, with less disease and untreatable pain.