Author Peter Andrey Smith titled his article on the relationship of the brain to the intestines, and, in particular, the tiny creatures that live in our intestine beautifully: “The tantalizing links between gut microbes and the brain”.
If the human brain is the frontier of medical science, the microbiome, those tiny creatures that live in our intestinal tract, is Jupiter. The linkage between what goes on in the gut and the brain is indeed tantalizing, and the subject of research worldwide. There are over 1,000 different kinds of those things living inside us. There are hints that having the wrong mix of gut microbes, or the absence of any particular type, is linked to asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and more. Further, antibiotics, illnesses and other factors can deplete the population.
Here are seven things we can do to help keep our little creatures happy and healthy.
- Eat the right stuff. There is evidence that the right diet helps keep the right bacteria healthy. Prevailing scientific opinion favors having plenty of plants in our diet, including root vegetables like carrots. Our old friends for heart health: leafy green vegetables, are on our list. And some of the microbes appear to enjoy fermented stuff like sour kraut, kimchee and yogurt.
- Be careful about taking antibiotics. M. Pilar Francino, Senior Scientist and Head of the Genomics and Department of Public Health in Valencia Spain specializes in research on the gut microbiome, describes how antibiotics can negatively affect the microbiome, sometimes causing a reduction in the size of certain bacteria of 30%. Further, while sometimes the bacteria recover, that may take months or even years to do. Research link here. Further, we’re likely to consume some antibiotics from meat as cattle, hogs and chickens are treated with antibiotics. (We aren’t saying not to take antibiotics. There are some bad bugs out there that kill a lot of people. If you have an infection, don’t be stupid or stubborn; take your medicine.)
- Cut back on highly processed food. It has been shown to be tough on our tiny friends. I love salty chips. Potato chips, taco chips, you name it, I love it. But I’m trying to cut back myself.
- Get enough sleep. Too little sleep is rough on gut bacteria. Do they sleep while we are sleeping? I don’t have an explanation on why sleep matters, but it does.
- Be careful with alcohol. Too much alcohol can kill some of our microbiome off. One more reason to be smart about how much alcohol to consume.
- Take a probiotic. Every drug store now carries dozens of choices. And most of the yogurt for sale in the grocery store is loaded with healthy microbes. I take a probiotic capsule that claims to contain ten billion organisms. A) How can they possibly count those things to know? B) That indicates just how small these things are: billions can be in a standard-sized capsule.
- Get plenty of fiber. There are companies out there pushing “prebiotics”. There may indeed be a role for their products, but proceed with caution. It is early days of research on what constitutes gut microbiome health, and even earlier days to determine if many folks need a prebiotic, and, if they do, how to obtain them. The benefits of fiber, on the other hand, are well known. There are almost unlimited food sources of fiber. Make sure you are getting plenty.