How To Improve Your Gut Microbiome
If you’re looking to lose weight and keep it off, one critical component that’s often overlooked is restoring the harmony of your gut microbiome. What exactly does this mean though? Trillions of bacteria and microorganisms live in our bodies – the majority of which are in our large intestines (the gut microbiome). While a small percentage does carry disease, most of these bacteria exist to keep us healthy. Therefore, the aim is always to have a much larger amount of “good” than “bad” gut bacteria and to ensure that the good bacteria is as diverse as possible.
When it comes to weight loss, we traditionally tend to focus on calorie restriction and exercise (calories in versus calories out). While this approach typically does result in weight-loss, that’s just a piece of much larger puzzle. Studies over the last 5 years show that the real game changer comes when you create a healthy, balanced gut microbiome. When you improve the composition of your gut bacteria, you reduce/eliminate unhealthy cravings, decrease inflammation, reduce insulin sensitivity, balance blood glucose and change the way your body metabolizes food and stores fat. However, if you allow the harmful bacteria to flourish, it can set the stage for obesity, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disease, mental illness and several other chronic conditions.
So, how can you enhance the diversity of your gut bacteria to improve weight loss? Here are 9 simple ways that are nearly universal, and the results can be seen almost immediately.
- Include a wide variety of vegetables (especially leafy ones!) in 2-3 meals a day. Some of the best include leeks, radishes, onions, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes, jicama and spinach but the greater the variety of plant fibers, the better. Also, include some fruit at least once a day, preferably in the morning. Why? Fruits and veggies are terrific sources of fiber which help to promote the growth of healthy microorganisms in your gut. A particularly beneficial bacteria is Bifidobacteria which may help to prevent inflammation in the intestine and improve gut flora balance. Chronic inflammation is a key factor in premature aging and disease including cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, mental illnesses, Alzheimers and more. Chewing these fibers well helps to enhance digestion so aim to chew each bite at least 15 times.
Some of our favorite ways to ensure we are getting plants at every meal:
- Add them to omelettes, grainless wraps/tacos, legume-based pastas or use them as pizza toppers.
- Make sandwiches with lettuce or nori wraps rather than traditional wheat bread/tortillas.
- Get creative with your bowls! Try scooped peppers/tomatoes, zucchini or sweet potato boats, and Acorn squash bowls.
- Load your sandwiches with lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, pickles, onions, and avocado.
- Try spaghetti squash, cauliflower/broccoli rice or zucchini/sweet potato noodles in lieu of traditional pasta and rice.
- Cut out processed foods and refined sugar. Monnosaccarides (simple sugars, and this includes alcohol!) are digested so quickly that your gut bacteria never has a chance to feed from them. If these make up the majority of your diet, you will literally starve your microbiome to death. To make matters worse, they will then begin eating away at your intestinal lining, which can lead to inflammation, candida, leaky gut and autoimmune conditions. Some sweet alternatives that will keep your taste buds and tummy happy are honey, dark chocolate (70% cacao), apples, berries, coconut sugar, banana, sweet potatoes and mango.
- Eliminate artificial sweeteners. Research has shown that artificial sweeteners negatively impact the gut microbiome. They may raise blood glucose levels, contribute to glucose intolerance and even trigger body fat production, so be wary of these dangerous additives lurking in your food/beverages even if you don’t add them yourself. Some of the most common ones include:
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low)
- Acesulfame K—used in many diet beverages
- Sucralose (Splenda®)
- Aspartame (NutraSweet®, Equal®)
- Neotame (used in shelf-stable baked goods)
- Take your probiotics. Probiotics have been shown to boost immunity, improve digestion and promote a healthy weight. You can get a good probiotic supplement at your local health food store; however, always consult with your PCP to see what strains of cultures are best for you, as everyone’s microbiome is unique. Additionally, there are several probiotics on the market that claim to have live cultures but do not, or are loaded with undesirable fillers, so do your own research beforehand.
- Stock up on dietary prebiotics . Prebiotics are specific types of dietary fiber that nourish your “good” gut bacteria, keep the harmful bacteria from flourishing, and manage the enteric nervous system. They also boost immunity and keep your digestive tract healthy so it’s easier to lose weight. Some staples we suggest keeping on hand are apples, leeks, garlic, onion, asparagus, nuts, seeds, root veggies, lentils, and green tea/cacao/red wine extracts.
- Eat 1-2 servings of fermented foods daily. Probiotics (the good bacteria) grow during fermentation. They help to crowd out the “bad” bacteria in your digestive tract and reduce inflammation in the body (a critical factor when it comes to weight loss). Additionally, fermented foods often contain more vitamins and minerals than from the same foods that haven’t been fermented, and these nutrients are more readily absorbed. Some of our favorite fermented foods are pickles, kimchi and raw sauerkraut (we particularly love Hawthorne Valley raw Feuerkraut).
- Be consistent with your diet. Short-term dietary changes do change the balance of your gut flora, but if you’re not consistent, these changes will be short-lived. Gut bacteria are quite resilient and are constantly seek to return to their “normal”composition – i.e/ whatever that looks like based upon your usual diet. This means that cultivating harmony of these micro-oganisms requires dedication and consistency. Just as inflammation and digestive disorders don’t happen overnight, nor does restoration of the microbiome. Be patient and stay the course- it takes a little time for them to recognize your new, "cleaner" way of eating as the "new normal".
- Avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics. Although it is often necessary to take antibiotics to fight bacterial infections, overuse is a serious public health concern that can lead to individual and widespread antibiotic resistance. In fact, the CDC states that up to 30% of the antibiotics taken in this country are prescribed unnecessarily. Antibiotics are alsoextremely harmful to our gut microbiome, as they wipe out the “good stuff” along with the “bad”. Some studies show that the gut is still deficient in a number of beneficial bacteria strains up to 6 months after a round of antibiotics is complete, so if you do have to take them, you may even consider doubling up on probiotics for a few weeks afterwards
- Get 7 hours of quality sleep each night. Getting enough good-quality sleep is not only essential for our immune systems, it also improves mood, neurological function and gut health. Research shows that one of the reasons sleep deprivation and irregular sleep habits cause weight gain is because it significantly changes your gut flora. The last five years of research shows that these microorganisms actually have a sleep routine of their own. In fact, one study found that the gut flora of people with jet lag showed higher numbers of the harmful bacteria associated with obesity and diabetes. Just two nights of sleep deprivation can cause the gut flora of a healthy individual to resemble that of someone who is obese. Set a healthful sleep routine by turning in and waking up at the same time each day, and aim for at least 7 hours of quality sleep every night.
As we head into the holiday season, which is not only the most indulgent and celebratory time of the year, but often also the most stressful (this year more than ever!), please keep these simple tips in mind. Take care of yourselves- not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. The gut-brain connection is powerful, more so than we can begin to comprehend. Stay healthy, stay safe, and Happy Thanksgiving.