I stopped washing my hands as often after reading, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood and Your Long Term Health, by Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, PhDs. It’s all in the name of gut health. The authors, gastrointestinal research scientists at Stanford University, believe that we over-sanitize our homes and ourselves, to the detriment of the numerous strains of bacteria populating our small and large intestines, collectively known as the gut microbiota.
The Sonnenburgs’ Havanese dog, Louis, as in Louis Pasteur, divides his time between their house and play sessions in their yard that’s filled with an organic vegetable garden. They approve when their two daughters pet Louis then come straight to the dinner table, seeing it as an opportunity for gut-friendly, organically-cultivated bacteria to become a nourishing part of the meal. I was inspired. The last time I was at my parents’ house, I wasn’t as careful about separating my dog-petting hand and my snack-holding hand.
It’s often reported that the western world is suffering the consequences of an undernourished gut. Increasing evidence suggests this predisposes us to many diseases including, diabetes, cardiac disease, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, obesity and allergies. More specifically, most of us eat plenty of food but, as the Sonnenbergs put it, we starve the microbes in our guts which puts us at risk of inflammation and disease.
Our gut microbes mostly reside in the colon where they cozy up to a mucus layer that lines the intestinal walls. When we neglect to feed our microbes they, reluctantly, eat the mucus layer which breaks down the barrier of the intestinal wall and inflames the gut. This stresses the immune system and sends it into high alert. If this state persists long enough, the immune system loses its ability to fight off pathogens and distinguish between threats and non-threats.
It also appears that the state of the microbiota influences weight gain. Researchers from another study have suggested that chronic gut inflammation may manipulate the body’s ability to burn calories, causing more to be stored as fat. The Sonnenburgs suspect that particular species of microbes could either encourage or prevent weight gain. Once more is known, obesity, maybe even every disease, could be treated by doses of specific microbes.
Before reading their book, my conversation about gut health was peppered with mentions of probiotics, which are gut-friendly bacteria in fermented foods, and prebiotics, the food of probiotics. I thought these buzzwords and the products marketed as containing them were the path to optimal gut health. The thing about probiotics though, is they are expensive to buy pre-made, and homemade requires a lot of space and time. Yes, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, kombucha and kefir are ultimately simple to make. But I’ve found them more suitable as cooking projects I occasionally undertake, not one of them is yet to become a mainstay of my routine. Also, each contains only a small number of probiotic strains, conferred to our guts in small amounts. Our colons are an ecosystem of hundreds of different strains, co-existing in ways we don’t understand. I would have to make and eat a massive amount of different fermented foods everyday to achieve a beneficial quantity and diversity of probiotic strains. Eating homemade yogurt for breakfast a few times a week isn’t going to make much of a difference to my gut.
While not dismissive of probiotics, the Sonnenburgs explain a much easier and affordable way to feed your microbiota. They promote following a diet based upon microbiota-accessible carbohydrates (MACs), which they supplement with probiotic-rich foods. MACs are a type of dietary fiber that contains inulin, a soluble fiber. Our bodies can’t digest MACS, but the microbes in our colons can, and they’re exactly what they want on the menu.
Foods containing MACs are plant-based: whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit, cocoa, coffee and most vegetables. My husband was delighted when I told him that popcorn contains MACs, but dismayed, and perhaps a bit stubborn toward change, when I said that potatoes do not, they’re digested as a sugar. My husband avoids sugar, but is very Irish when it comes to potatoes.
When microbes metabolize MACs, they produce a “waste” product of short-chain fatty acids which are absorbed into the bloodstream then, in ways not fully understood, strengthen the immune system and ease inflammation throughout the body.
The western diet is ruled by a long list of non-MAC foods with meat and refined carbohydrates at the top. It’s easy, as the Sonnenburgs point out, to go an entire day without feeding your microbiota: breakfast of eggs, white toast and bacon; lunch a white bread sandwich stuffed with deli meat and cheese; and dinner a steak and baked potato.
The Sonnenburgs outline many helpful ways for adopting a gut-nourishing diet and lifestyle spanning the entire life cycle. The book includes a section of recipes for every meal of the day that would easily integrate into anyone’s cooking repertoire. I bookmarked “Aztec Hot Chocolate”, “Symbiotic Scramble” and “Muesli for Microbes”.
As parents, they’re full of practical advice for raising children with healthy guts. This includes how to ensure your child’s exposure to good microbes when c-section is necessary, as it was for one of their daughters, and how to encourage kids to care about eating well for their microbiota. As an adult only looking after myself, I learned a lot about the gut-immune system link and how to care for an aging microbiota.
When my wisdom teeth were removed in October, I was very disappointed to be put on a course of antibiotics. By this point I had read their book and knew that the Sonnenburgs believe that antibiotics can be a life-saving necessity, but should be considered as a last resort. Antibiotics are “broad spectrum” meaning they kill all bacteria, good and bad. I had spent a long time cultivating what I hoped was a healthy gut, so I was very frustrated and, I admit, scared to erase everything. Thankfully, the Sonnenburgs provide detailed information about repopulating and nurturing the gut following antibiotics that was essential to getting my gut back in order.
The Sonnenburgs admit that there is much more to learn about the microbiota and the microbiome, which is the genetic material of the microbiota, and how they influence human health. What is known is very promising. Since a diet rooted in plant-based fiber is irrefutably good for human health, there’s no reason not to do it for (friendly) microbial health too.
Washing my hands less and rebuilding my microbiota after antibiotics are just a few ways the book has changed my life. Since reading, not a meal has gone by that I haven’t assessed for its quantity and value of MAC-containing foods. I’m convinced my health is all the better for it. If you’re at all interested in the role of gut health in overall human health, I highly recommend you read, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood and Your Long Term Health. You’ll see just how closely your microbiota is linked to your quality of life.
My favorite gut-friendly foods are chickpeas and sweet potatoes. What are yours?
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