When I say “bugs,” what do you think about?

If you’re like most people, you’re probably envisioning lady bugs or butterflies, or maybe something more sinister like spiders or centipedes.

What we often don’t think about are the “bugs” living inside of us; that is, the billions of microorganisms, including eukaryotes, archaea, viruses, and importantly, bacteria, that live in our guts and play a key role in our overall health. This human microbiome can, in many aspects, be considered a vital organ in and of itself.

“Bacteria in an average human body number ten times more than human cells,  . . . [and] make up about 1 to 3 percent of our body mass (that’s 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria in a 200-pound adult).  [They] produce some vitamins that we do not have the genes to make, break down our food to extract nutrients we need to survive, teach our immune systems how to recognize dangerous invaders and even produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off other disease-causing microbes.” –The Human Microbiome Project

It may sound gross, but we need these “bugs” to survive and thrive!

Unfortunately, the human microbiome can be thrown out of healthy balance and into dysbiosis by a variety of factors, including antibiotic use, stress, and poor nutrition. You might suspect issues with your gut health if you have:

  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • excessive gas
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • decreased concentration or “brain fog”
  • joint pain
  • fatigue

And while making changes to our nutrition and supplements to help keep our gut health in check is certainly advisable, the health food industry, with all its claims and promises, can be a tricky place to navigate. To really keep our guts healthy and happy, we ought to avoid these common pitfalls:

Choosing the wrong probiotic.

Go to any health food store and the options for probiotics will be extensive. With so many choices, how do we pick which one is right for us? Dosage? Price? Claims on the bottle? How pretty the package is??

It turns out, the biggest factors in deciding which probiotic will be best suited to our needs are:

  1. The exact organisms used, including genus, species, and strain (for example Lactobacillus acidophilus La5 or Bifidobacterium longum BB536)
  2. The amount of viable organisms in each dose, or CFU (1 billion per each organism, guaranteed until the end of the product’s shelf life, is usually plenty!)

Each strain, even if within the same genus and species, might very well have different effects and abilities for our gut health. Therefore, it is important to choose a strain that is well researched and proven to have the benefits we are seeking. What’s more, many times the strain information may not be included in the label, so prior research or a call to the manufacturer can be very helpful! (For more on this, and to find research on various probiotics, click here).

Relying on the wrong kind of yogurt and other fermented foods.

Even though simultaneous digestion of dairy products with healthy bacteria can help that bacteria survive the acidity of the upper GI tract and make it to the gut, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all yogurts will be equally beneficial. Some yogurts, like Activia for instance, have probiotic strains added in that have been proven health benefits, while others do not. Additionally, some yogurts do not contain any live bacteria whatsoever! Be sure to check the label for “active live cultures” and avoid yogurts with added sugar and preservatives.

Other beneficial fermented foods include kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi, while tempeh, miso, and sourdough breads are not reliable fermented foods because they are usually cooked, killing any potential helpful bacteria before ingestion.

Trying to decrease refined carbohydrates by substituting artificial sweeteners.

Diets high in refined carbohydrates and low in fiber have been shown to wreak havoc on gut health. But reducing sugar intake by relying on artificial sweeteners is not a good alternative.  Sucralose (i.e. Splenda), for example, has been shown to decrease counts of the good bacteria lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Instead, try increasing your intake of complex carbohydrates by adding in more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and using natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup in moderation.

Skipping out on “colonic” foods.

Some foods help to better “feed” our healthy microorganisms than others. Oat bran, green tea, dark cocoa, almonds, carrots, and brown rice have all been shown to have positive effects on the human microbiome.

In general, eating a well-rounded, whole foods, plant-based diet (as well as managing our stress and using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary) is invaluable to keeping our guts healthy and our bodies happy.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below! Have you found success in keeping your gut healthy? What are some of your favorite “gut friendly” foods?

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References and for more information:

Human Microbiome Project

Probiotic Advisor

Hawrelak JA. Prebiotics and Probiotics. In: Pizzorno JE, Murray M (eds). Textbook of Natural Medicine (4th ed). Elsevier. 2013. Pg. 966-994.

Tuohy, K., Conterno, L., Gasperotti, M., Viola, R. (2012). “Up-regulating the human intestinal microbiome using whole plant foods, polyphenols, and/or fiber.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 60, pg. 8776-8782.