The resurgence in fermentation may feel like a shock to the system but you have probably been consuming fermented foods and drinks for a lot longer that you realise. Coffee, chocolate, beer, they’re all been made possible due to the transformative actions of micro-organisms (but perhaps gut health isn’t the main selling point of these!).
But the reason we have these traditional processes in the first place isn’t for the impact it has on our microbiome but for the preservation of the food and perhaps the most important part of fermentation, to enhance the flavour and make food even more delicious. The fermentation process involved in chocolate develops the taste of the bean but by the time it makes it to our mouths the microorganism are long gone. What once was a living food is alive no more.
But why do we want bacteria?
We’re still being sent clear messages that bacteria are bad. Sprays and wipes that eradicate 99.9% of bacteria from every surface in every home. Where has this war on bacteria left us? Partly with a fear of fermented foods and even more worryingly with the increase of a wide range of conditions that are being linked to a dwindling microbiome. Autoimmune conditions, heart disease, cancer and diabetes all have links to what is happening in our gut.
The bacteria we’re exposed to in our early life is perhaps the biggest determinant of our risk of some of these conditions. Such is the impact of these environmental microorganisms on ‘training’ the young immune system, that an interesting study showed that children of families who reuse sponges to wash their plates have fewer allergies. These bacteria literally train the immune system.
The Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiome is a collection of micro-organisms with the vast majority living in our large intestine. This collection of 2kg worth of bacteria support digestive enzyme production, how many calories we extract from food and how our immune system functions. When everything is going well and is in balance then we don’t hear a peep from it, but a disrupted gut microbiome has been associated with changes in health, not only in the digestive system, but throughout the body. As has been said, the gut isn’t Las Vegas. What happens in the gut doesn’t just stay in the gut
What Is a Healthy gut Microbiome?
Of all of the various microorganisms found in the gut microbiome, the quantities vary from person to person. In fact, when we are looking for the ‘perfect’ microbiome, where’s best to look?
Researchers have travelled to traditional hunter gather tribes. These are the humans who are still living the way humans have lived for most of our time on the planet. In close contact with nature, eating seasonally and in close family groups. Across several of these tribes and even on different continents, there was little commonality seen with levels of the bacterial species. However, there was one factor that was the most predictive of a healthy gut. This was the diversity of the microbiome.
The Importance of Diversity
The health of any ecosystem is dictated by the diversity of the organisms living within it. A forest, a garden, the gut microbiome - it’s the same principle. The greater the diversity, the more resilient the environment is to any insults or damage.
Diversity in the gut microbiome also gives greater benefits when it comes to it’s functions. We know that the role of some bacteria is to detoxify hormones, others are needed to digest certain plant fibres, while another species help to maintain a healthy gut lining. As soon as diversity is impacted, so too are these processes.
By supporting the diversity of our gut microbiome, we’re allowing our residential microbes to look after us.
What Impacts Diversity?
A wide range of factors impact our bacterial diversity. If we view this from the perspective of how different our lives are now from those of the traditional hunter gatherer communities it makes perfect sense. Simply put, it’s our separation from nature.
Urbanisation and the war on bacteria have put up a clear wall between our lives and the environment in which we, as humans have spent the majority of time on the planet surrounded by. Lack of variety in our diets, antibiotic use and lack of sleep all additionally contribute to our dwindling microbiome.
These bacterial signals to our bodies from our environment, via our microbiome, are so fundamental. And these environmental imbalances in microorganisms lead to bacterial imbalances within our digestive system.
We can’t go back are rewrite the last 10,000 years, nor go back to living as hunter gatherers. What can we do?
The name of the game is to increase diversity. The 3 mains ways we can do that are:
- Exposure to bacteria. Microorganisms from our environment including our diet support the microbial diversity in our gut. Time in nature, playing with a dog and eating fermented foods all contribute.
- Eat a diverse selection of veggies, fruits and fibres. A simple aim is to work towards eating 30 different plants each week and different colours of the rainbow every day.
- Maintain normal and consistent circadian rhythms. The sleep-wake cycle supports these foundational gut microbial processes.
With everything we know to be beneficial to our health it’s all about consistency. Small amounts regularly serve us far better than huge amounts once in a while.
A spoonful of sauerkraut a day keeps lack of diversity at bay!
If you want to learn more about gut health come and hear me talk at the College of Naturopathic Medicine on Thursday 12th March: