5 Things to Know About Cultivating Your Gut Diversity to Upgrade Your Health

When feeling well, not to mention looking good, is the goal, it pays to focus on your gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is the trillions-strong community of bacteria whose job it is to keep you healthy. It handles much of the digestion of your food, metabolizes nutrients, makes vitamins, produces powerful essential compounds, and protects your gut lining from springing leaks by fortifying the gut’s cell wall. If that weren’t enough, the gut – both the human cells and their bacterial allies – is home to roughly 70% of your immune system! With all these critical functions relying on that microbial world, I urge you to take care of yours!

By now, most of my patients and readers have gotten the message. But they may not realize that microbial diversity – having lots of different, health-supportive strains of bacteria inside you – is a key element of a healthy gut, and a healthy body. Here are a few thoughts on what microbial diversity can do for you, how to protect it and how to enhance yours every day:

Microbes defend and protect.

When it comes to your gut microbes, it’s a case of the more the merrier. Just like having a variety of skills increases your versatility in life and work, the wider the variety of microbes your gut microbiome is stocked with, the stronger and more resilient it will be. Gut microbial diversity helps enable the microbiome to work at its peak, ready to come to your defense and fight off the opportunistic invaders that would otherwise make you sick. Those gut microbial troops work with your human immune cells to recognize and resist any pathogens that come down the intestinal pike, so the more diversity you’ve got to tap into, the better. It’s the bacterial equivalent of having the Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Coast Guard at the ready, versus just one branch to fight your battles.

You want diversity, not dysbiosis.

Not sure If you’re gut microbiome is sufficiently diverse? Classic clues include feeling tired much of the time, catching colds easily and, more often, having frequent gastrointestinal issues like gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation (and back again). For some, this dysbiosis (an out-of-balance gut lacking a diversity of healthy bacterial strains) may also manifest as brain fog, anxiety and/or depression. These symptoms are not ‘normal’ and they’re big clues that you need to listen to them – not just live with them.

Just about every day in my practice I see patients who are being dogged by these issues. And the conventional medical treatments, usually pharmaceuticals, aren’t offering relief, and for some, may be making matters worse. In the majority of these cases, some type of dysbiosis is causing much of the trouble. There may be too much of one or more strains of bacteria, and nowhere near enough of another – leaving the gut prone to those distressing symptoms and your immune system vulnerable to attack. All too often, unwellness follows.

To confirm that dysbiosis and loss of bacterial diversity loss is upending your gut health, I recommend a lab test like a comprehensive digestive stool analysis (CDSA) to determine which bacteria, yeasts, or fungi are present and which are not, as well as any imbalances or overgrowths.

Dysbiosis may be recent or go back as far as childhood.

There are a number of ways that dysbiosis and lack of microbial diversity can occur. Among the most common causes I see, especially among those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, is a history of frequent antibiotic use during childhood, adolescence or young adulthood. Even if it’s been a while since the last dose, those rounds of antibiotics carpet-bombed the microbiome and wiped-out millions of the health-protective bacteria, along with the not-so-beneficial bugs. Not all of the good guys may recover on their own, especially in the patients who wind up in my office, so as the ensuing ills start to mount, the need to rebalance the gut becomes paramount.

Modern life doesn’t help microbial diversity.

It’s not always the over-prescription of antibiotics that tanks gut microbial diversity. Often, it’s a combination of factors. Our entire Western industrialized way of life – from the widespread use of microbe-killing meds (not just antibiotics) to the processed-food-filled Standard American Diet (low fiber, packed with sugar, artificial sweeteners, chemicals, and pesticides) to the use of the antibiotic (really!) week-killer glyphosate (aka Roundup) – conspires to reduce diversity.

Another underminer? The way we treat the earth, polluting it and decreasing diversity in our ecosystem. Just like our guts, our external environment needs diversity, as many species as possible, to maintain a high level of resilience and to thrive. And just like an area hit by a forest fire is more susceptible to landslides and mudslides, a gut that’s been microbially burned down will be infinitely more vulnerable to pathogens.

Why else does diversity matter? It’s been observed that people with poorly diversified microbiota, have a higher prevalence cancers, diabetes, heart and respiratory diseases.  The more we learn about the importance of maintaining gut health, the more we’re discovering that many if not most of the diseases we suffer from today are associated with diversity loss in the gut microbiome – so bottom line, get your gut microbes in order asap!

Tend your microbial garden -- and help it flourish.

To reduce the negative impact of modern life and start reversing the microbial tide, there is a lot you can do to encourage more microbial diversity. The two most important influencers: the food you eat and the things you do.

Are you a creature of habit, prone to eating the same old plants and proteins every day? Even if your choices are healthy, unprocessed and organic, you still need lots more variety – eating the same chicken and spinach combo every day won’t do much to expand your microbial net. Instead, go wide and really eat the rainbow, in different combinations every day. Your gut bacteria will love variety and the more varied foods they get to break down, the more microbial diversity you’ll gain and health benefits you’ll enjoy. Remember: a healthy gastrointestinal microbiome depends on dietary diversity.

Think of it this way: it’s like giving your gut bugs a work-out. If you hoist the same kettle bells every day in the same way, the muscles you’re working will coast along, without getting much stronger. Changing it up and surprising your body will yield much greater benefits. Same with your diet, and keep in mind that what you avoid eating matters too. Here’s my top 10 list of foods to eat for microbial diversity and which ones to avoid:

  1. DO eat clean, organic produce and healthy animals – always avoiding conventionally-grown in order to sidestep dangerous pesticides and antibiotics. Organic and/or farmers’ market products tend to be raised with more small-batch TLC (though they may use some natural pesticides) – and without the antibiotic pesticide Roundup.
  2. DO eat more fermented foods —sauerkraut, kefir (fermented milk), kimchee (Korean fermented vegetables), or fermented vegetables.  Fermented foods help repopulate your gut with beneficial bacteria.
  3. DO eat prebiotic foods as in foods that contain the fiber on which friendly bacteria feed.  Key prebiotics include tomatoes, garlic, onions, radishes, leeks, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichokes.  Always remember to eat the stalks and stems as that’s where a lot of the fiber is.
  4. DO go deep on fiber – with every meal, and, in particular, add more resistant starch like the kind you find in nuts, seeds, and legumes that “resist” being broken down to glucose and feed the bacteria in your gut the stuff they thrive on.
  5. DO drink bone broth – to help heal and soothe the gut and help seal the leaks.
  6. PASS on GMOs and glyphosate — beyond the cancer link, the deleterious gut-microbe-bashing antibiotic effects of glyphosate are a must to avoid, so stay far away from genetically modified foods and foods raised or treated with glyphosate.
  7. PASS on sweets and starches – which feed the overgrowth of bad bacteria in the small intestine which can lead to gut leaks, ultimately weakening immunity and triggering inflammation.
  8. PASS on unhealthy fats– like trans fats and industrial oils, which trigger inflammation.
  9. PASS on junk food and processed food, almost all of which contains trans fats, GMO corn, GMO soy or industrial seed oils.
  10. PASS on gluten, preservatives, artificial ingredients, and sweeteners any and all of which disrupt your gut’s microbial balance and drive diversity loss.

Lifestyle choices can make a big difference here too. To upgrade your daily habits and help your microbial diversity to boot, add the following healthy habits to your must-do list:

  1. SAY YES to intermittent fasting – early research indicates that it may help restore gut microbial diversity, reduces the immune system’s overreaction to otherwise not-seriously-harmful microbes, and helps restore the integrity of the intestinal wall.
  2. SAY YES to good sleep – make it a top priority, and get enough of it, as in 7 – 8 hours a night.
  3. SAY YES to movement – throughout the day, every day, breaking every hour or two for a stroll around the house or the office or block, or do a few good stretches, in addition to regular, longer bouts of exercise a few times a week
  4. SAY YES to stress reduction – finding healthy ways to unwind, be it meditation, time in nature, saunas or just a pre-bedtime hot bath, are all fantastic ways to support microbial diversity.
  5. JUST SAY NO to antibiotics –and save them for real emergencies. Instead, opt for herbal antibiotics when needed. They’re better at killing the unfriendly bacteria while leaving the friendly microbes alone. If you must take an antibiotic, between doses, take a daily probiotic capsule or powder, containing friendly bacteria to help replenish your gut microbiome.
  6. JUST SAY NO to PPI’s – proton pump inhibitors wreak havoc on your gut bacteria.