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 It’s the reason you break down food and absorb nutrients. It’s the backbone of your immune system. It’s a key player in your weight, inflammation, metabolism, and — increasingly — the darling of cutting-edge mental health and wellbeing research.  

Its made up of tens of trillions of bacteria and organisms, all making a home in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It grows and changes and adapts as you do, is more complex than you can imagine, and never hits pause or needs a nap (even if you do).

It’s your gut microbiome. And we want to make sure that flora can flourish so you can be a healthier, happier you. Here’s ten ways how.

Healthy Microbiome Tip #1: Eat fermented foods — and lots of them  

Pickles, sourdoughs, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, sauerkraut, miso, yogurt. Drink it or chew it, make it a soup or star it as a stir fry. However you can get yourself to eat the wide range of fermented foods out there, this doctor gives a thumbs up.

Fermented foods get their unique flavor profile from enzymes that convert sugars into proteins and lactic acids. This process helps directly “feed” your own digestive system’s micro-makeup, allowing efficient nutrient breakdown and absorption. So next time you’re at the store, ask yourself if you’re getting the most “tang” for your buck.

Healthy Microbiome Tip #2: Stay hydrated

Although most of us know the general eight by eight rule (eight glasses of eight ounces of water a day), most people still don’t drink enough. The health effects of this spill everywhere, with your gut as no exception.

Proper hydration keeps things moving through your lower digestive tract. It also helps maintain the lining of your intestines as flexible and smooth, able to pass waste, and encourages a healthy atmosphere for balanced microbiome growth. Plus, not drinking enough water can lead to adverse digestive-tract issues, such as constipation, which irritates and can even damage your flora system.       

Healthy Microbiome Tip #3: Lower your stress

Yes, there’s yet another reason to try meditation, listen to soothing music, or finally get that massage.  

When you’re stressed, your body enters the proverbial “fight or flight” state. Your nervous system kicks into overdrive, making your heart race and your senses sharpen by diverting blood away from things like digestion. And while this is a natural and advantageous reaction, unaddressed, it can cause some serious damage to the part of your body housing 80% of your immune system.  

Prolonged stress has been linked with inflammation in the GI tract, as well as weakened digestive processes that are more susceptible to infection. When your body repeatedly lives in fight-or-flight stress state (such as in stressful jobs or social situations), research indicates you permanently alter your digestive muscles’ ability to properly contract and relax. What’s more, stress can imbalance your stomach acids and secretions — causing further harm to your microbiome.    

Healthy Microbiome Tip #4: Keep it fresh (your plate, that is)

Sure, being a picky eater might make your dinner rotation simpler. Yet the truth remains that more fresh fruits and veggies, combined with a diverse range of meals, means a healthy microbiome.

Similar to doing only one kind of cardio or performing one weight-lifting routine, eating the same set of meals won’t necessarily hurt your gut flora, but it won’t help them either. That’s because you’re only fueling a small amount of gut bacteria, while ignoring or even starving others.

Every week, try at least one new leafy green or bright-colored vegetable. Likewise, snack on new fruits and nuts between meals, and make your plates as colorful as possible when you sit down to eat.      

Healthy Microbiome Tip #5: Get outside

Coming into contact with nature and her diverse bacterial microme strengthens and complements our own. In fact, studies have shown that nature’s ability to calm and relax us, combined with its rich and diverse system of microorganisms, is a winning combo to encourage the “rest and digest” state for our bodies — the exact opposite of fight or flight.    

If you don’t see wooded hikes or intense gardening in your future, never fear! Small acts like cracking open windows or having houseplants can keep things from getting too stuffy, as well as trigger proper microbiome reactions and stimulation inside your own system.  

Healthy Microbiome Tip #6: Embrace fiber

Your microbiome’s bacteria love them some fiber. It’s a favorite nutrient, and they feed on it to keep waste flowing smoothly out your body.

Adults are advised to eat between 25–35 grams of fiber a day, with the easiest doses coming in complex carbs, legumes, and green vegetables. Sprinkle some beans on your next salad, add lentils to a soup, snack on popcorn, and include cruciferous veggies (think broccoli or brussel sprouts) as sides to at least one meal a day. Your gut will thank you later.      

Healthy Microbiome Tip #7: Don’t overly sterilize your surroundings

Products like hand sanitizers, antibacterial soaps, scrubs, sprays, and household cleaning supplies are a whopping $60 billion-dollar industry in the U.S. And while this attention to cleanliness is very much rooted in modern medical and scientific breakthroughs, it’s not hard to see the pendulum swing too far.

Over-sanitizing your house can actually have an opposite effect — killing weak varieties of “bad” or harmless bacteria while strengthening the most series strains. This, in turn, dulls your immune system’s response to foreign pathogens. This is especially common with kids and the elderly, and is one reason why you may want to rethink a religious use of hand sanitizer before snacktime.      

Healthy Microbiome Tip #8: Get a pet (or hang out with one)

Just as the microdiversity of the outdoors is good for you, household pets can carry a boost for your immune system, bolstering your ability to adapt to foreign microorganisms.

Studies have shown that children raised with pets have lower risks of obesity and asthma, as well as significantly decreased rates of allergies. They also have been tested to carry more complex stool samples, a key indicator that there’s something good going on in the gut. The more diverse your waste, the healthier your microbiome makeup tends to be. So go on and give Fido a belly rub — he really is a good boy.   

Healthy Microbiome Tip #9: Watch your sweet tooth

Refined sugars and processed sweets are some of the hardest foods for your body to digest. They offer little-to-no nutrients while simultaneously disrupting your ability to regulate blood sugars.

On top of this, journals like Scientific American warn that artificial sweeteners found in everything from Diet Coke to toothpaste throw off the two main kinds of bacteria production in your GI, with long-term consequences. Imbalanced flora means improper food breakdown, less nutrient absorption, and sugars entering your bloodstream more erratically — the bedrock of diabetes and obesity.        

Healthy Microbiome Tip #10: Know your medications

Certain antibiotics can be especially hard on your gut. Common prescriptions like amoxicillin carry side effects such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, particularly because medicines like these cannot differentiate between infection-causing “bad” bacteria and the good, digestive kinds.

Though who can blame them? With nearly 100 trillion microorganisms in your GI — nearly 500 of which are bacteria alone — they have a lot to deal with! Yet don’t be afraid to consult with a doctor about a medication’s digestive side effects and what can be done to minimize them.    

For more information on microbiomes and gut health, schedule an appointment with a digestive care specialist by calling 301-288-1319.