By Daja, Contributing Writer
Did you know that you have more bacteria in your microbiome than you have human cells in your whole body? By a ratio of 100 to 1! Your human genome may be set for life, but your microbiome is constantly changing! It can be healthy or sick and there’s a lot you can do to help it be there former and not the latter!
What Is A Microbiome?
According to the University of Utah, some use “microbiome” to mean all the microbes in a community. We and others use it to mean the full collection of genes of all the microbes in a community. The human microbiome (all of our microbes’ genes) can be considered a counterpart to the human genome (all of our genes).
Your human ecosystem has lots of residents, including bacteria, archaea, fungi, protists, viruses, and microscopic animals. Don’t let that freak you out. Without all these residents our bodies would not be able to survive.
It can be tough to imagine because for the past century we have done all we can do to sterilize our world. Antibacterial soap and lotions, hand sanitizers, antibiotics (in meat and milk and animal feeds and prescribed for minor illnesses), bleach, air fresheners that promise to kill all the germs. All these things do not discriminate between good bugs and bad bugs. They have one mission: kill all the things. And they do a good job of it. The bugs all die–the good guys along with the bad guys. Like an abandoned neighborhood after a natural disaster, the bad guys move back in quick. And multiply. So what can you do to encourage the good guys to take up residence, multiply, and keep things in check?
10 Ways To Feed Your Microbiome
1. Shower Less
I live on a small farm. Our house is about 200 years old. The well is hand-dug by some beautiful faithful soul way back in the beginning. It is 16 feet deep. This summer we had a drought. It went dry. It will recover as the ground water recovers, but in the meantime, we’ve been in the strictest water-conservation mode. This means that showering has been, let’s say…not so frequent. In the summer we just took everyone swimming and let them wash off in the lake. Now that it’s colder, we load up the kids every so often, take them to the neighbors for showers. But, overall, we’ve been a shower-less family.
(A side benefit of this is the increased ability of absorb vitamin D through oils on the skin!)
Your microbiome isn’t just in your gut. It also includes your skin! Your skin has its own flora, rich in bacteria, fungi, and yeasts. Over-bathing can contribute to immune dysfunction, as your good bacteria washes down the drain. And this is especially true if you use any detergent soaps and shampoos. Leaving the bacteria on your skin to do its life-sustaining job can reduce incidence of auto- immune disease, asthma and allergies. (Interesting reading here in the journal of Clinical and Experimental Immunology.)
2. Enough With the Hand-Sanitizer Already
Take a deep breath. It is OK to be exposed to a variety of microbes. It actually helps build our immune system, so we can be sick less! But, living in a little sterilized world where we lather our children in hand sanitizer at the park, makes us gradually weaker so that we are less able to fend off offending microbes. Need to clean your hands? Regular soap and warm water works just fine.
3. Plant a Garden
The soil is teeming with microscopic life, most of it beneficial. We can expose ourselves to more of it by simply getting out in it, getting our hands dirty, having some mud under our fingernails, breathing in fresh bacteria and viruses. It’s a fact! Studies show that those that garden have stronger immune systems. [source]
4. Pet the Dog/Cuddle the Cat
Families that have indoor pets have less incidence of asthma and allergies, as well as cold and ear infections. The exposure to pets should start early–ideally before 6 months of age. Some studies indicate that the immune boosting aspect of pet ownership may start in the womb when Mom is exposed to more micro-action while pregnant! [source]
5. Have a Vaginal Birth
Believe it or not, mode of birth can affect immune system. Babies born through c-section may have less robust immune systems. This according to researchers, published in Clinics in Perinatology. “The microbes that ‘seed’ the intestine during either cesarean delivery or vaginal delivery may lead to changes in long term colonization and subsequent altering of immune development.” Basically, mom’s bacteria in the vaginal tract is transferred to baby during birth colonizes the intestinal tract.
6. Eat Leafy Greens
Although all vegetables and fruits carry with them certain bacteria (especially those grown organically), leafy greens provide an abundance of bacteria thanks to greater surface space on which to host it, plus they are low in sugar, so as not to feed the bad bacteria! Kale, spinach, cabbage, chard–YUM!
7. Include Fermented Foods in Your Diet
The broad world of fermentation can seem overwhelming at first. So start small. Choose one thing. Make it a part of your diet routine. Then add another, and another, until you are eating a wide variety of living probiotic foods! Here are some articles to get you started: Why You Should Be Eating Fermented Foods, The Health Benefits of Water Kefir, and Super Foods To Sneak Into Your Kid’s Diet. And here are some simple recipes that anyone can do (they are really delicious too!): Easy Kombucha Flavors, Fermented Veggies, Fermented Salsa, and Nourishing Elixirs.
8. Consider Adding a Probiotic Supplement
The “to supplement or not to supplement” debate rages on, even in my own head. Ideally, we should get everything we need from our food and water. But, we don’t live in a perfect world. Sometimes the challenges we face due to the environment, poor health choices in the past, autoimmune disease, and inherited weaknesses lead us to supplement for optimal gut health. Here are some links to help you decide if supplementing with a probiotic is right for you: Probiotic Supplements–Are they worth it? and Why My Kids Take Probiotics.
9. Learn to Relax and Eat With Gratitude
Are you surprised this is on the list? You shouldn’t be. The gut is referred to as the “second brain” and according to Berkley Science Review, the science of the gut continues to make good on its promises to aid in the understanding and treatment of mental disorders and more. By consciously learning to relax and to express gratefulness, we can help our bodies to digest things better, reduce inflammation, and boost our immune function. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that high levels of stress increased the likelihood catching colds. (For more about managing stress read: Close The Zoo.)
10. Avoid Unnecessary Pharmaceuticals, Including Hormonal Birth Control
I’ll just say it plain: It’s time for women to stop taking one for the team. The damage done by hormonal birth control to the environment and our health outweighs any potential benefit in the long run. Most women are not told by their physicians that hormonal birth control wreaks absolute havoc on gut health–which can lead to auto-immune disease, depression, and increased likelihood of reproductive cancers. It’s just not safe. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way for family planning decisions to rest squarely on the shoulder of both partners? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if women didn’t have to risk their lives and health in order to take charge of their own fertility? Well there is. It’s called NFP (Natural Family Planning). And it’s not your mama’s rhythm method, either. It’s science. It’s empowering. And it works–without putting your gut and life at risk. If you’ve been on hormonal birth control in the past, educate yourself and start the path to heal your gut and repopulate it with good bacteria.
What other ways do you feed your microbiome?
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