Most of us have long been aware of some of the more obvious microbiome-disrupting practices such as antibiotic intake (both prescription and via consumption of industrialized foods such as beef and chicken - stick to organic grass-fed, pasture-raised if you consume these foods) or excessive alcohol consumption, but there are other substances, found in every day foods, that can be causing us harm as well.
Just last week while listening to a podcast featuring Dr. Grace Liu, I learned that emulsifiers in foods wreck the gut lining. Why had I never heard this until now? An article posted on PubMed from 2014 gave it mention:
"Processed foods containing emulsifiers and detergent-like compounds may damage the intestinal lining, potentially leading to “leaky gut” and systemic inflammation (contributing to inflammatory-based diseases such as diabetes and CVD)."
[CD = Crohn's Disease]
"Maltodextrin (MDX) is a Common Food Additive That Alters Both Microbial Phenotype and Host Anti-Bacterial Defenses.
Since the mid-1950s, MDX has been added to foods as a filler, thickener, texturizer, or coating agent and is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Federal Drug Agency (FDA).11 We found in a survey of grocery store food items that ∼60% of all packaged items had “maltodextrin” or “modified (corn, wheat, etc.) starch” included in their ingredients list. Furthermore, results of a food frequency questionnaire indicated that 98.6% (210/213) of respondents routinely consume food items containing MDX, with an average consumption of 2.6 MDX-containing items per day. These surveys demonstrate that MDX is currently a ubiquitous and frequently consumed dietary polysaccharide additive in the general population.Increasing evidence supports a modulatory relationship between commensal bacteria, host immune responses, and diet;6,12–15 therefore, we investigated the impact of MDX on bacteria, cellular anti-bacterial responses, and intestinal homeostasis. In the course of our studies, we uncovered disturbing parallels between the increasing dietary prevalence of MDX and a dramatic rise in CD incidence (Fig. 1).16Additionally, MDX consumption by preterm piglets lead to the expansion of ileal E. coli populations17 and induced necrotizing enterocolitis in these animals, but not in fully developed pigs.18 Increased levels of E. coli and AIEC strains have been repeatedly observed in ileal CD patients, suggesting a role for E. coli in disease pathogenesis.19–21 In earlier work from our laboratory, we found that patients with ileal CD have a mucosal microbiome enriched for MDX metabolism, as compared to colonic CD patients and non-IBD controls.22 Additionally, we demonstrated that MDX has a direct effect on multiple E. coli strains, including AIEC, to enhance cellular adhesion and biofilm formation, mimicking the dense biofilms observed in the gut of CD patients21 (Fig. 2). These findings suggest that MDX consumption may promote E. coli colonization, as well as colonization of these microbes to a new region of the gastrointestinal tract."
So, consuming maltodextrin, commonly found in foods on store shelves - even sometimes in health food stores - truly is causing huge issues in our guts, even allowing some pathogenic bacteria to take hold and multiply. Read labels.
Another product with some gut controversy surrounding it is the herbal sweetener, Stevia. I know, I know, "NOT STEVIA! NOOOOOOO!" But yes, it seems it can damage, in particular, the good bug Lactobacillus reuteri, known to lower cholesterol. More research is needed on the effects of Stevia on the gut microbiome, but I choose to exercise caution around this product until further studies are conducted.
Another common group of products that influences gut microbiota is OTC pain-killers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, among others. This study from PubMed says, "...bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract reflect the combinations of medications that people ingest. The bacterial composition of the gut varied with the type of NSAID ingested." In the expanded report, it is stated that "the microbial-induced effects of NSAIDs are of considerable concern."
What do we do as an alternative to pain killers when we are experiencing physical pain? Sometimes, when pain is severe and interferes with daily life, it may be necessary to take some sort of pain killer for a short time. Seek alternatives to medication whenever possible. When I began suffering from frequent debilitating headaches, I sought chiropractic care and was able to return to a normal, pain-free life. Physical therapy, yoga, or the Graston Technique (for soft tissue damage) and herbal pain relievers such as white willow bark and turmeric are all options to look into as well. When my kids were young, I used clove oil on their gums to help with pain from teething. There are many natural alternatives to OTC and Rx pain relievers. Ask your natural health coach or natural care practitioner for options that fit your area of concern.
Stress, pollution, chlorinated water, chemicals in our environment (the weed killer glyphosate being among the most insidious), make-up and body care products (use organic, phthalate- and paraben-free options) clothes (always wash new clothes before wearing!) and furniture (flame retardants) all damage our microbiome. The good news is that we can create healthy daily habits to nourish and help replenish our good gut bugs.
Eating organically grown foods, drinking spring water (or filtered water with mineral drops added), showing with a filtered showerhead, using all-natural body care products, exercising and finding ways to de-stress are all beneficial to our microbiomes. But first and foremost, feeding our microbes fiber is tantamount to their good health (and their good health is tantamount to our good health).
Eat the rainbow of fruits and veg daily - see how many colors you can consume each day. Make a list of your favorites from each color (ie: orange - oranges, carrots, sweet potatoes, etc.) and be sure to mix it up - try not to eat the exact same foods every day. Diversity in food is key to diversity in microbes - it is thought that an increase in microbe diversity in the gut correlates with a decrease in disease and disease risk.
As do I, I've seen many microbiome-aware health practitioners around the web recommend supplementing the diet with certain types of fiber. The two I see most (and I also use) are inulin and gum arabic (aka acacia fiber). Gum arabic is slow to break down, so it makes it all the way down to the lower colon where the bulk of our good bugs reside - and we want to make sure they're being properly fed! Feed them, and they feed us in return, with beneficial acids, vitamins and other metabolites - even neurotransmitters that can help us feel calm and happy.
GOS, or Galacto-oligosaccharides, found in foods like onions and beans, have been found to feed bifidobacteria can help with everything from IBS to depression and anxiety. However, unlike our primal ancestors, it's very difficult to consume enough fibrous foods to adequately nourish our good gut buddies. GOS supplements can help us consume enough of this type of fiber. Galactoimmune from Klaire Labs is one source of GOS.
Although there are many threats in our environment that can harm our microbiomes, there are, thankfully, measures we can take to reduce the damage and feed our gut guardians. Remember: feed them, and they'll feed you!
Curious about who's hanging out in your microbiome? If you would like to have your gut microbiome sequenced, click here for $39 off Viome's test (normally $399US). It shows active bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, parasites and all their metabolites and gives food recommendations geared toward making your 'crobes happier and healthier.