It turns out we have many more one-celled bacteria living inside the human body than we have human cells that make up our bodies – and most of them live in the gut. There, trillions of these “bugs,” collectively known as the microbiome, handle some pretty crucial functions that we couldn’t live without. They help the our immune system identify toxins coming into the digestive system that need to be neutralized; they break down the insoluble fiber in the plant foods we eat, in the process, making compounds that repair and build up our protective gut wall; they help produce vitamins and hormones. They even work in tandem with hormones produced in the gut to regulate our mood!

But it’s a two-way street. You have to take care of the microbiome for it to take care of you. Over-rely on antibiotics or common over-the-counter remedies or simply eat a diet that’s low in fiber (food for the good bugs) and high in sugar and flour (food for the bad bugs), and you can easily throw off the all-important balance of your bacteria. And that’s inviting trouble, from digestive problems like bloating, gas, loose stools or constipation to food sensitivities, skin problems, allergies and auto-immune disorders.

In short, a healthy gut needs a healthy microbiome to do its job of extracting nutrition from what we eat and protecting us from the bugs and toxins we take in every day. To keep gut health humming, here are eleven ways to be kind to your microbiome:

Pass on sugary, starchy, and processed foods.

If it’s sweet or starchy, and especially if it was produced in a food factory, it’s not good for you or your microbiome. High-in-sugar foods and easily-digested starch mostly get broken down in the small intestine where they can overfeed harmful bacteria, leading to SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Adding insult to injury, processed foods contain nasty stuff like trans fats, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, artificial ingredients, genetically modified organisms (GMOs)  and industrial seed oils, all of which can wreak even more havoc on the microbiome – so get them off your plate.

Say no to gluten.

If you and your diet have been mistreating your microbiome, odds are good you don’t have enough bacteria, or enough diversity of bacterial species, to help the gut immune system recognize friend from foe. That likely contributes to an increasingly common overreaction to gluten, a compound protein found in some grains, like rye, barley, and especially wheat and wheat-based or derived products, including spelt, durum and semolina. That in turn can lead to hosts of nasty ills, everything from IBS-type symptoms to brain fog. Gluten is worth avoiding or limiting for its own sake, but if your microbiome is out of balance, it’s especially important.

Avoid glyphosate sprayed crops.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the highly toxic pesticide known as Roundup used on GMO crops. It’s also a registered antibiotic, making the stuff awful for your body and even worse for gut health. And it’s not only used on GMO crops now. It is being used on many different food crops, including corn, peas, soybeans, flax, rye, lentils, triticale, buckwheat, canola, millet, potatoes, sugar beets, soybeans and other edible legumes to speed up the drying process in preparation for harvest. My advice? Sidestep glyphosate by choosing organic and/or farmer’s market options instead.

Skip conventionally farmed meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs.

Conventional animal products almost always are fed large amounts of antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick and to fatten them up before slaughter, and they end up in you when you consume those products. In addition, these animals are given hormones and likely fed GMO corn or soy too. Not what you or your microbiome need to thrive!

Minimize your antibiotic use.

Sure, every so often a raging infection may warrant antibiotics but much of the time they’re unnecessary and can lead to potentially dangerous antibiotic resistance. Inside the gut, they’re indiscriminate killers, taking out the good bacteria along with the bad. Whenever possible, go with herbal “antibiotics” or anti-microbial herbs. They tend to be tougher on the toxic bacteria you want to get rid of and easier on your good bacteria.

Steer clear of the Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs).

There’s good research that’s found that people who rely on stomach-acid-blockers (like Nexium, Prilosec, etc.) are less likely to have a diverse collection of bacteria in the gut. That means greater vulnerability to leaky gut and digestive or immunity problems.

Add prebiotics to your plate.

Fiber from plants is good for the microbiome but certain veggies are veritable microbiome superfoods! Seek out garlic, onions, radishes, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes and tomatoes. In addition, the chewy part of the vegetable – like the stalks of broccoli or the bottoms of asparagus – are the most nutritious for the gut bacteria. So don’t chop off the stalks – eat them! The good bugs who live lower down in the colon need plant fiber to produce the compounds that protect the gut wall. Without these fibers, a consequence can be leaky gut syndrome – where bits of bacteria and undigested food escape through microscopic holes in the wall and enter the bloodstream, triggering system-wide inflammation

Likewise, add fermented foods.

While prebiotic fibers feed your resident gut bacteria, fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee (Korean fermented cabbage) or kefir (fermented milk) come loaded with their own bacteria that join up with the bugs in your gut. The research suggests that the newcomers help the longtime residents do a better job of protecting your health – so add a few servings a week to your plate.

Take advantage of a daily probiotic.

Although it’s always best to get your probiotics from food, you can also enjoy the advantages of fermented foods in easy supplement form, either a capsule or powder, just be sure it contains a number of active bacterial strains known to promote health. If you are taking an antibiotic, balance it out with a high quality probiotic to help keep your belly on an even keel.

Filter your water.

Chlorinated water kills harmful bugs and tamps down many water-borne diseases. However, it can also do a number on the good bacteria in your microbiome. To protect your microbiome from some of the chlorine damage, invest in a good water filter.

Don’t ignore lifestyle changes.

And, remember that lifestyle matters too! Studies keep showing that getting enough exercise, restorative sleep and stress relief impacts the health of your microbiome, so don’t cut corners if belly bliss is your goal!

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