Why Microbial Diversity is Important
Probiotics are not the answer
The gut microbiome contains trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that inhabit every part of the digestive system. Humans have more gut microbes than all the other cells in the body combined. Recently, researchers have learned that this community of microbes can significantly impact our health. A rich and diverse microbiome is thought to positively affect physical and mental health and lower the risk of health conditions and allergies.
Our microbiomes are becoming less diverse, for reasons including city living, cesarean sections, less breastfeeding, increased exposure to toxicants, monoculture, and poor diet. This loss of biodiversity can cause various health problems, and although we cannot prevent it, we can take steps to boost diversity.
10 ways to improve gut diversity
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables
We recommend a produce-rich, colourful diet for good health. Eating different sorts/types of plants, is beneficial for gut health. Eat seasonally. Try something new each week.
- Increase fibre intake
Fibre benefits our health by nourishing gut bacteria and keeping our intestines and immune systems healthy. Not everyone can tolerate a high-fibre diet, or all types of fibre. Sometimes underlying issues need addressing before you can up your fibre intake.
- Eat high-fibre vegetables
Leeks, artichokes, asparagus, garlic, and onions are high in inulin, a prebiotic fibre.
- Eat polyphenol-rich foods
Polyphenols are naturally occurring, poorly absorbed plant compounds. Gut bacteria break down the remainder into metabolites that positively affect health (5).
Polyphenols can increase beneficial gut bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, and decrease less helpful bacteria. Catechin, a polyphenol in tea, chocolate, apples, and blackberries, can prevent the growth of some kinds of pathogenic bacteria (6). Phenolic compounds contained in various berries and tea have also been found to have antimicrobial effects on human pathogens (7, 8).
- Drink small amounts of red wine
In small quantities, wine increases gut diversity by increasing the beneficial bacteria Bifidobacterium and Prevotella (9), probably because of its polyphenol content. Drinking too much can negatively impact the gut microbiome.
- Reduce artificial sweeteners
Animal studies have found that artificial sweeteners change the balance of gut bacteria and reduce levels of beneficial bacteria. This includes Splenda (10), acesulfame potassium (11), aspartame (12), and saccharin (13). The effects in humans are unknown, though initial research suggests similar effects (14), (15).
- Spend time outside, and with animals
According to the hygiene hypothesis, our immune systems need to be primed, so living in semi-sterile environments can create health problems. People who live in the countryside have more diverse microbiomes than people who live in cities (16). Gardening, forest walks, and other exposure to nature and soil are all beneficial for the gut microbiome (17). Babies living with animals have more diversified gut bacteria — an indicator of immune system health — than those who don’t have pets (18). Having a pet, taking care of a friend’s pet, and visiting local farms may all be beneficial for gut bacteria.
- Avoid unnecessary medicines
Antibiotics wipe out both good and bad microbes. It can take a long time to recover - if your microbiome ever fully recovers. Antibiotic use is associated with obesity and allergies in animals. Other medications can affect the balance of gut microbes (19).
- Avoid antibacterials
Wash fruits and vegetables in warm water before eating them, preferably with added bicarbonate of soda to remove residues. Wash your hands before eating to remove harmful bacteria and viruses. Obsessive cleaning with antibacterial sprays is counterproductive and may harm your gut bacteria.
- Eat foods with live microbes
Fermented foods with live microbes can benefit the gut microbiome and may also boost the food’s nutritional value. Dr. Gail Cresci, who studies gut bacteria, says that fermented foods can support gut health by assisting with digestion, producing vitamins, and protecting us from the pathogenic bacteria to which we are constantly exposed (20).
- Consider Probiotics
Our clinical experience is that probiotic supplements alone usually do not improve gut problems. This may be because probiotics do not seem to stay in the gut and grow as was previously expected. If they reach your gut at all, most of these bacteria only live a few hours to a couple of days. However, there is considerable evidence that specific probiotic strains can be beneficial for certain conditions, when taken at the right time and dose.
Can we help?
If you would like some personalized dietary and lifestyle advice to take care of your gut health, you are in the right place. Nordic Wellth is a holistic, evidence-based nutrition and lifestyle medicine company run by Registered Nutritionists and Medical doctors who are passionate about helping people to meet their health and lifestyle goals. We offer online consultations and group programmes with professionally-trained nutritionists and wellness coaches.