Lori Alton via NaturalHealth365 – We sometimes use the words “gut instinct” to refer to a deeply held belief or powerful impulse – without fully realizing just how appropriate that phrase is. Researchers are beginning to recognize the immense power of the gut microbiome (the community of bacteria living in the gastrointestinal tract) to protect against disease, regulate metabolism and even influence mood and outlook.
But, how do we keep a healthy balance between life-sustaining “friendly” bacteria and harmful, disease-causing microbes? A newly published scientific review showcases the profound effect of diet and nutrition on the microbiome -and provides hints as to which type of foods can help optimize gut health.
Why the Gut microbiome Is So Important to Your Health
The gut microbiome is composed of literally trillions of microbes, including bacteria, fungi and viruses.
“Friendly” bacteria help extract energy from food and stimulate the immune system by activating disease-fighting T and B lymphocytes. In fact, a surprising 70 percent of the immune system is located in the lymphatic tissue of the gut.
These helpful microbes also regulate neurotransmitters that affect your mood and cognition.
By the way, the relationship between the gut microbiome and cognitive health is so strong that many scientists maintain that intestinal bacterial health is one of the primary factors in determining the severity of cognitive decline as we age.
And, some natural health experts believe that dietary changes over the last century – along with the use of pesticides on food – are the primary factor behind growing rates of depression!
From the growing body of research on the microbiome, one important fact is emerging. Imbalances in the ratio of friendly and unfriendly bacteria – a condition known as dysbiosis – is strongly associated with a grim parade of serious diseases.
WARNING: Cutting-Edge Research Links Dysbiosis with Heart Failure
In a recent article published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the authors reported that changes in the composition of the microbiome (such as the diversity and ratio of various bacteria) are associated with atherosclerotic coronary artery disease (CAD).
In one study, participants with CAD were found to have an abundance of Enterobacteriaceae, a microbe associated with inflammation and chronic diseases. In addition, they had relatively low levels of bacteria that produce butyrate, an anti-inflammatory fat needed for proper immune function.
Meanwhile, congestive heart failure patients were found to have overgrowths of pathogenic fungi, such as candida – along with the Campylobacter bacteria.
And, patients with type 2 diabetes also had lower concentrations of butyrate-producing microbes. Not only did patients with heart disease have overgrowths of certain pathogenic bacteria – but they exhibited a “consistent decrease” in microbial diversity.
The authors concluded that dietary nutrients serve as “key environmental influences” on intestinal microbes, and stated that modulating the microbiome could help prevent – and possibly even help treat – heart disease.
More Evidence: Diet Profoundly Affects the Health of Intestinal Bacteria
In a 2020 overview of literature published just this month in Nutrition Reviews, the authors examined 86 scientific articles and studies involving the gut microbiome.
The review, which was conducted by scientists at George Washington University and the National Institute for Standards and Technology, revealed just how profoundly nutrition affects the microbial composition of the gut – and highlighted the contributions of plant fiber to microbial health.
By contrast, the authors noted, protein metabolism appeared to result in harmful byproducts that could linger in the gut, with possible health consequences. More study is needed, the authors declared, to investigate ways in which the microbiome responds to dietary interventions.
Read Carefully: The Key Nutrients for a Healthy Gut Microbiome
Most of the research on nutrients for a healthy microbiome has centered on plant fiber, which serves as fuel for gut microbiota and causes the production of short-chain fatty acids. These beneficial fats function as signaling molecules that help to modulate blood pressure and inflammatory responses.
Short-chain fatty acids also improve absorption of nutrients and reduce intestinal transit time – thereby shortening the time that toxic byproducts can accumulate in the intestines.
In addition to dietary fiber – which is found in good supply in legumes, fruits and vegetables – probiotic foods like miso, sauerkraut and kimchi can help support a healthy gut microbiome while reducing the inflammation that lies at the root of virtually all serious chronic diseases.
Here’s a tip for you: unsweetened yogurt with active cultures helps encourage beneficial microbes known as lactobacilli, while apples, artichokes, blueberries and almonds increase numbers of anti-inflammatory Bifidobacteria.
And, don’t forget about prebiotics, those non-digestible carbohydrates that provide fuel for gut bacteria. Asparagus, bananas, garlic and onions are all good sources.
You can also protect microbiome balance by avoiding pro-inflammatory refined oils, refined sugars and GMO foods.
Important to note: artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, don’t get a thumbs-up either. These have been shown to increase the number of bacterial strains linked with metabolic and heart disease. Natural health experts advise opting for the natural sweetener stevia instead.
You can also preserve intestinal health by avoiding harsh chemical cleaning products, cigarette smoke, and unnecessary courses of antibiotics.
On the whole, plant-based and vegetarian diets seem to offer more health benefits to the gut microbiome than meat-based eating plans. Before switching, however, check with your integrative doctor or nutritionist for help in creating a dietary plan that is right for you.