Meet the bacteria keeping you well

We have more bacteria in our gut than cells in our body. Why minding these microbes can help you get healthy from the inside out.

As foreign as it sounds, the word microbiome may soon be part of the mainstream lexicon. The term refers to the microbes or bacteria that naturally inhabit the body, from the surface of your skin to your gut. We tend to think of microbes as bad—pathogens that need to be killed—but new research suggests scores of microorganisms in our gut are paramount to our health and metabolism.

“Western medicine is catching on to the importance of all the bacteria in our bodies—especially in our gut. In Functional Medicine we’ve been manipulating this microbiome for some time, but it’s primarily been guesswork. We have 100 trillion microbes in our gut—more bacteria than cells in the body. They aid in digestion and detoxification, help support our immune system, and manufacture key vitamins, among other functions,” says Frank Lipman, MD, the founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness in Manhattan. “Understanding these microbes is the future of medicine.”

The Human Microbiome Project, a National Institute of Health initiative, is working to shed light on the topic. “It’s such a new field and there are so many studies underway. But we do know that it’s important to keep your flora in a balanced state,” says Lipman. “A disturbed microbiome, where bad bacteria and yeast overtake the good ones, can cause all sorts of health problems from autoimmune diseases to weight gain.”

Thus far, gut microbes have been shown to influence metabolism and certain types may play a role in obesity. One family of bacteria, called Firmicutes—get ready for this—can even cause you to absorb more calories from your food. Another, called Bacteroidetes, is associated with leanness.

Wondering how to keep your belly balanced—and flat? Your trump card may be a healthy diet. It appears to prevent microbes associated with obesity from flourishing. Until more is known, Lipman suggests keeping your microbiome in mind when you eat. Here, his tips:

Skip the processed foods.
The additives in processed foods can kill off good bacteria. Refined carbs are also problematic, because sugar feeds bad bacteria, allowing it to proliferate and this leads to physical cravings for more sugar. Stay away from wheat and soy too. Most are genetically modified and GMOs disrupt gut flora.

Limit your exposure to antibiotics.
There’s a place for antibiotics, but don’t take them every time you have a runny nose. They’re overused and even though they target bad bacteria, they also kill off the good. Another problem is factory-farmed meats—70% of the antibiotics used in this country are used in livestock and this leads to chronic exposure, because when you consume the meat, you’re absorbing those antibiotics, too.

Down green juice.
There are thousands of bacterial strains and we don’t know enough about all these organisms yet, but greens appear to help improve the diversity of healthy organisms in the gut and research shows greater diversity may have greater health benefits.

Eat pre-biotic foods.
Healthy gut bacteria thrive on pre-biotics, which are non-digestible fibers found in foods like root vegetables, onions, leeks, garlic, artichokes, beans, asparagus, oats, nuts, and bananas. Think of it as giving the good microbes something to chew on.

Get your probiotics.
Fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, and sauerkraut, are becoming the hot new thing as people learn more about body ecology. They’re important because they naturally contain probiotics, which encourage the growth of good bacteria. Some people also respond well to a supplement, so I recommend one containing some of the most-studied probiotic strains: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium lactis.
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