This past March, I was Activia’s guest at the incredible Gut Microbiota for Health Summit. Speakers from all over the world addressed topics relating to the microbiome and its impact on our health and wellness. I was not paid for this post.
A lot of you have messaged me asking for the highlights from this Summit, so here you go!
Gut health and how it relates to our health is fascinating, and we’re only just beginning to understand how the two are intertwined. I even heard one of the speakers at the event say that the gut is responsible for a large portion of chronic diseases. Can you imagine if one day we cracked the code to optimizing our gut microbes and eliminated some of the worst illnesses that plague us today?
Just for your reference: microbiota refers to the bacteria in our gut.
Microbiome is the larger community of various microorganisms in our gut, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses…)
The ‘gut’ refers to the intestines, mainly the large intestine, where most of the bugs hang out.
Our gut isn’t just for digesting food. Around 80% of our immune system is in our gut. It also synthesizes vitamins B12 and K, modulates inflammation, influences fat storage, and talks to our central nervous system. If our microbiome is healthy, that goes a long way in helping us be healthy, too.
The standard American diet of highly processed foods doesn’t support a healthy microbiome. In healthy populations, diet is one of the most attainable approaches to modulate gut bacteria.
Here are some of the many things that I learned at the Summit:
With low-carb diets being so popular, fiber has sort of melted into the background as a forgotten nutrient.
Too bad it’s also crucially important.
I’ve had many a Twitter tiff with low carb dieters who believe that fiber isn’t ‘essential’. I guess in the pure sense of the word, fiber is not essential because we don’t need it to live, but it’s still important for health.
Aside from being a part of many nourishing foods that you should be eating already – fruits, vegetables, and yes, whole grains – fiber is food for our microbiome, aka the 100 trillion bugs in out gut. When we consume insoluble fiber from plants, the bacteria in our large intestine break it down into short chain fatty acids, which in turn feed our intestinal microbiota.
They also do a lot more than that – check out this incredible infographic from Gut Microbiota for Health.
Studies show that in people who eat a fiber-free diet (hello, carnivore dieters!), bad gut bacteria actually chew up the protective mucus layer that lies on top of our intestinal wall, causing an inflammatory response and increased gut permeability aka ‘leaky gut’.
The average person in North America consumes around 16 grams of fiber per day, but incredibly, our ancestors ate 20-30 times that – up to 400 grams per day, but our recommendations are far lower. Aim for 21-38 grams per day.
Fermented foods have been consumed for at least 10,000 years. First developed to prevent food storage, the process of fermentation gives birth to beneficial bacteria that create health benefits in the gut. Some of the things these microbes do are: enhance gut barrier function, enhance absorption of some nutrients and reduce anti-nutrients in raw foods, talk to immune system (and tell it good things, of course).
It’s not enough to eat fermented foods though – you need the ones that contain live bacteria for the most impact.
Some fermented foods, such as probiotic yogurt with B.L. Regularis (hint: not all yogurt is probiotic!), kimchi, refrigerated sauerkraut, and kefir have microbes that reach the gut alive and well; other fermented foods, such as chocolate, wine, tempeh, and sourdough bread, lose their live microbes because of their further processing.
While lots of people are piling steak onto their plates, science suggests that eating 8oz or more per day of red meat or other animal proteins that are rich in fat and cholesterol may have detrimental effects on our risk for heart disease, heart attack, and death.
TMAO, or trimethylamine, is a by-product of animal protein metabolism that’s made by microbes in our gut. Elevated TMAO levels strongly predict cardiovascular disease risk.
There may be a 2-3x risk of CVD/CVD mortality from high levels of TMAO. Elevated TMAO levels may also be a factor in increased risk for stroke, as TMAO appears to affect blood clotting times.
It’s not all bad news, though. Subbing out some of the animal proteins in your diet for plant proteins, for the majority of people, TMAO levels take around 3-4 weeks to go down.
Research on TMAO as a whole is really preliminary, so we need to take findings with a grain of salt. One thing for sure though – eating more plants is always a safe bet.
Individualized microbiome nutrition.
Getting your own microbiome tested is becoming a thing, and it’s predicted that in the near future, we’ll be able to skip over the one-size-fits-all probiotic supplements that we have now, in favor of ones that are custom-made for us.
While some tests exist, the problem with taking them is that we don’t really know what to do with the results. We aren’t sure what a health-associated gut microbiota looks like, making it difficult to personalize probiotics and diets right now.
The research of microbiomes is still in its relative infancy, and even though it’s cool to see what’s going on in your gut, the guidelines that you receive with your results are merely that – guidelines. They’re not meant for diagnosing anything, and because the microbiome can change rapidly, you’re getting a mere glimpse into your gut right at that time.
The best thing to do is to eat a gut-friendly diet of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed foods, and not worry about reading the minutiae.