The human gastrointestinal microbiome, also known as our gut flora, is an intricate system of microorganisms that live within our digestive system. It’s made up of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that play a role in our digestion and overall gut health. A healthy, well-fed microbiome assists in modulating our risk of chronic diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (1). Also, it functions to support our immune health.
The immune system is complex and highly responsive to the continually-changing environment around us. Our microbiome works intimately with our immune system to avoid illness and infection. A healthy gut microbiome ensures the bad bacteria are not overpowering the good bacteria in our system. To keep this from happening, it stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies that prevent gut inflammation caused by bad bacteria or even viruses. Overall, the microbiome is involved in “supporting” rather than “boosting” the immune system in various ways.
During these unprecedented times of COVID-19, the uncertainty of the virus itself can become overwhelming at times. However, focusing more on what we all can control is important. First and foremost, following the national guidelines to avoid the spread and reduce your chances of infection include reducing social contact, washing your hands regularly, and avoiding touching your face (2).
So how can we improve our gut health to ensure we maintain proper immune health and help avoid illness? Here are some of the top ways to support your gut flora during COVID-19.
Your Diet Needs to be Diverse
Perhaps you’ve heard the term “a diverse microbiome is a healthy microbiome”. This is in fact true!
As we grow, our gut microbiome begins to diversify. Changes in our environment and diet over time allows the species in our gut flora to evolve. Unfortunately, microbiome diversity starts to slow as you age. To combat this decline, we must feed our bodies in a way that promotes diversification. For the same reason you can’t find all the necessary vitamins and minerals in one banana, not all your gut benefits can be found in one type of food. Let’s look at how we can begin to diversify our gut microbiome!
1. Increase fiber intake
Improving your fiber intake can allow certain gut bacteria to flourish. This is especially important for your overall health as fibre may be preventative towards weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and possibly some cancers. One study suggests that adults should be aiming for about 40g of fiber per day to help restore the richness and stability of gut microbiota (3).
2. Eat seasonal fruits and vegetables
Speaking of fibre, having a well-rounded diet of fresh fruits and vegetables can help to support the various microbial species in your gut. It’s important to eat fruits and vegetables that are in season as your gut needs to continue to evolve throughout the year. By providing your body with variety throughout the seasons, you can develop gut diversity all while adequately fueling your body with the necessary vitamins and minerals! Remember to ”eat the rainbow” and consume multiple servings per day. I generally recommend a 5 +2 rule (5 veggie and 2 fruit servings per day).
3. Don’t become “hygiene obsessed”
Being conscious of good hygiene practices is crucial for maintaining your health, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, becoming “hygiene obsessed” can do more harm than good to your microbiome. Our skin is covered in millions of bacteria that are either harmless or serve to protect us from infection. When you obsess over personal cleanliness, you may be stripping your body from these good bacteria which can increase your risk of certain infections.
4. Avoid artificial sweeteners
Sugar substitutes have become a popular additive for people across the globe. Although they offer the sweetness of sugar without the calories, they are actually quite harmful to your gut microbiome. Artificial sweeteners, much like some medications, are shown to disrupt the metabolism of certain microbes in your digestive tract. One study suggests that it can cause glucose intolerance with over-use in healthy subjects (4).
5. Choose real foods over food and vitamin supplements
Adopting proper eating habits to feed your microbiome begins with eating real foods. Only a small portion of food and vitamin supplements can be considered more beneficial; however, 9 times out of 10, real foods win this fight. It’s better to focus on incorporating a well-rounded diet to achieve your nutrients throughout the day as your foundation before consideration is given to targeted supplementation.
Your Diet Needs to Be Consistent
Having a diverse diet is only one side of the story – the other relies on maintaining consistency. To properly influence your gut microbiota, you need to continually fuel your body with a variety of nutrient-sources. Just like you wouldn’t expect to lose weight by eating only one healthy meal all week, you can’t maintain a diverse gut microbiome without consistent practices.
Implementing the diet-diversification tips listed above can improve your microbiome over time, so long as you continue to care for it over days, months, and even years! In doing so, it will help support your immune health, improve your metabolism, and generate a stronger, more stable environment in your gut (5).
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Oftentimes, people tend to neglect the importance of water intake when it comes to their overall health, not to mention gut health! Your gut flora, which is composed of hundreds of different bacterial species needs to be maintained in an environment that promotes growth and longevity. Without proper hydration, you can’t efficiently digest the food you eat which can take a toll on your microbiome. Water helps to promote the balance of the numerous good bacteria by flushing away the toxins from our bodies.
Another major immune-specific benefits it provides is by protecting and maintaining a healthy mucus layer within our digestive tract. This membrane is incredibly important to our health as it protects the gut from bad bacteria by promoting their clearance thereby inhibiting inflammation and infection (6).
Research indicates there is no influence of water pH on gut flora (7). Based on this, it’s best to focus more on your daily intake. A good trick to remember is the 8 by 8 rule, which means adults should be drinking 8 glasses of 8 ounces of water every day.
Benefits of Probiotics and Prebiotics
Many people are familiar with the term probiotics, otherwise known as the friendly bacteria that we get from different foods and supplements. Probiotics help improve your health by providing and restoring your gut microbiome with more good bacteria. It helps to improve your metabolism, immunity, as well as providing protection from harmful bacteria or other pathogens that may have entered your digestive system (8).
Foods containing a plentiful source of probiotics include:
– Apple cider vinegar
– Soy milk
– Miso soup
One caveat: if you are histamine intolerant, the fermented foods listed above are not for you.
In addition to natural food sources of probiotics, you can also improve your intake with supplementation. It’s important to note that not all probiotic supplements are of good quality and will provide you true benefit. It’s best to consult your healthcare provider when choosing a probiotic supplement. Also, people with bacterial overgrowth, such as SIBO, should not take probiotics.
On the other hand, prebiotics are less known for their protective abilities, yet just as important as probiotics. Prebiotics are the non-digestible fibre compounds that serve to feed your gut bacteria, specifically in your lower digestive tract. Due to our bodies inability to break them down, they can bypass the small intestines and arrive in the colon where they support the growth and survival of these bacteria (9).
Limit Inflammatory Foods
Many people suffer from conditions that stem from gut inflammation. In the short term, you may be dealing with gas, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, or unexplained nausea. However, if symptoms persist over time you may be at risk of a more serious condition such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Luckily, there are plenty of strategies to help combat these symptoms by focusing closer on your diet. In order to minimize gut inflammation, certain food and beverages should be limited, if not avoided altogether. Some of the main food categories to limitinclude:
Refined carbohydrates: sugars and refined grains that have been stripped of all bran, grain, and nutrients such as white bread, pizza dough, pastas, pastries, etc.
Foods and beverages with added sugars: candy, chocolate, cakes, cookies,soft drinks, etc.
Processed foods: and other foods high in artificial trans-fats, such as hot dogs, sausages, etc.
Fried foods: often high in trans fats as these foods are cooked by submerging into hot fat, commonly oil
Margarine: shortening, lard, and other high fat-containing products
Research suggests that introducing probiotics into your diet can help minimize the effect of gut inflammation on your body (10).
Be Mindful of Antibiotics
Antibiotics are used to fight off bacterial infections in our body. Although they’re useful in treating these infections by killing off the bad microbes, they tend to destroy the good microbes too. These good microbes can take several days to weeks to recover.
The long term, repetitive use of antibiotics can be detrimental to your microbiome environment. It deprives you of a rich gut environment that’s critical for proper health and immune functioning. Although much of the good bacteria can recover in time, there’s a threshold of overuse that may cause some potential permanent loss. It’s important to be mindful of the use of antibiotics and to only take them when necessary (11).
Bringing It All Together
Throughout our life span, we are likely to interact with thousands, possibly millions of foreign microbes every single day. A healthy, well-rounded gut microbiome is not only beneficial, but essential to our survival under these circumstances. During the times of COVID-19, we should be focusing on our health and well-being more than ever.
As research has advanced, we now have a better understanding of the role our diet plays in shaping our microbiome. By adequately fueling your body with a diverse, consistent diet made up of various fresh produce, fibre, probiotics, prebiotics, and proper hydration you can improve your gut health. In addition, it’s important to recognize the negative effects of certain inflammatory foods and antibiotics as they are disruptive to your gut environment.
It’s never too late to improve your gut health, start today by incorporating one or two of these tips into your daily routine.
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