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November 17, 2017 2:38 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to keep my gut microbiota healthy?

Prebiotics? Probiotics? Specific nutrients? Thanks!
posted by Crookshanks_Meow to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a specific problem you're trying to solve? Normally there is nothing specific you need to do for this. But of course eating a varied diet, including plenty of vegetables, and some natural yogurt never hurts.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:29 AM on November 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'll be reading the answers here with interest.
I've just started on this two weeks ago, and till now I think it's working very well already (though I do experience some rumbling etc.) My mood is better, I have less digestive problems and I lost a kilo during those two weeks without counting calories or carbs or fat or anything. I cannot make myself take supplements, so for me it is only a slight change of diet, including both more prebiotics and probiotics. Yesterday I was traveling and couldn't follow my plan, and I've been reminded right away how uncomfortable I was before I started. As far as I understand it, days like that will be less of a problem when the system is more in balance.

One reason I trust this change in diet is that I did something very similar 35 years ago, before there was any mention of microbiota, but when I struggled with the same issues. I don't remember why I came up with that particular solution, but I got much better within four months back then.

Now, I bought some books, both on the theory and with recipes, but the latter have not been inspiring at all, so I tweaked my usual diet based on the theory instead.

My plan:
I have oatmeal for breakfast, instead of toast. It's based on water and includes cranberries and sometimes other dried fruit. Kefir and tea to drink.
A mid-morning snack or before dinner "cocktail" can be fermented beet juice.
For lunch I've changed my bread to a whole grain bread with mixed grains. I bake it myself to avoid hidden sugars or other processed stuff. Or I have healthy leftovers from dinner with a quick salad.
I make sure to eat a banana a day for snacks and drink chicory "coffee" with it.
Dinner is relatively normal, but I've cut down on the meat and include more gut-friendly vegs and legumes, and more vegetarian days. Again, no white bread.
I love pasta, and can't imagine enjoying life without it, but I've cut down on the number of days pr week I eat it, and make sure to have a good salad on the side, often dressed with apple cider vinegar.

These are small changes for me. I already rarely eat processed food, because of allergies, and I was already baking spelt and rye breads. But the change in quality of life has been impressive with these little tweaks, and that's a strong incentive to keep going. I hope someone more experienced/smarter will comment here, I'd love to get more inspiration.
posted by mumimor at 3:59 AM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

A lot of people swear by the health benefits of home made kefir and kombucha.

I make those at home because they are delicious, fun, easy, and more economical than buying at the store, but it’s kind of fun to consider that the probiotic colonies are now adapted to my local home environment.

There are zillions of guides online but I’m happy to talk shop over memail, or share starters with anyone who can pick up in Austin TX.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:53 AM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

The answer is very much "we don't know". We're only at the beginning of researching the microbiome, and a decent chunk of the data seems to show that traditional probiotics are.spectacularly ineffective at changing the composition of the microbiota in any kind of meaningful and lasting way.

So you can take supplements or change your diet, but please realize that you're doing so based largely on speculation, not on any kind of evidence-backed studies.
posted by chrisamiller at 5:57 AM on November 17, 2017 [10 favorites]

One area where modern scientific research has generally shown fairly clear beneficial effects of a probiotic, including mechanisms of action, is compensation for lactase insufficiency. See here for an animal model study, and here for scholarly research of the same stuff in humans.

As Too-ticky says, this is more about solving a problem though.

Here is a 2003 study that gives an overview of claimed benefits of kefir. While it is cautious, pointing out many gaps in knowledge, it has a good bibliography and gives a sense of what types of claims have some scientific support in the literature.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:58 AM on November 17, 2017

I take a probiotic now and then. The impact has not been earth-shatteringly ground-breaking as muminor describes (no weight loss, no changes in mood) but my digestive system does seem to work a bit more smoothly.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:27 AM on November 17, 2017

My wife is a pharmacist and she says this is one of the areas where our understanding is very limited - one, because we don't understand that much about the biome, two, because we have a very limited understanding of how much of the gut biome-related stuff we ingest actually survives when we eat it, and three, because there's very little actual control over how much pre/probiotic/etc. actually exists in the products on the shelf.

So - there are possibly benefits, but she has suggested if you're having gut related issues and have not done a full and refinementof what you're intaking on a daily basis (food, drink, meds), you're more likely to find a solution to your specific problems there than in an unregulated product whose benefits have not been proved conclusive.
posted by notorious medium at 7:35 AM on November 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Eat a balanced diet, light on the meats, a fair amount of good exercise, minimal processed foods. Water.
posted by sammyo at 7:55 AM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I definitely don't do probiotics, pre-biotics, kambucha or yogurt. The little reading I did on the subject indicated to me that gut micro-biota are anaerobic bacteria, and the bacteria in those foods and supplements are aerobic, so they are more distantly related to each other than you are to a daffodil.

Avoiding plastics and anything related to antibiotics is one thing. Glycophosphate treated produce, or land could be introducing biota killers to your system.

Avoiding processed food and trying a wide variety of food is good. Eating food both raw and cooked is good - For example the nutrients you get from eating raw cabbage are very different than the nutrients you can absorb from cooked cabbage - they might as well be two different plants.

I also try to pay attention to how my guts feel, including mood, since the digestive system is chock full of all those neurotransmitters that your brain is full of. The idea is to move further and further from a diet of processed food and be aware of how what I eat makes my system more or less comfortable and myself more or less happy.

I do not bother to buy organic - I worked for an a organic health food store once and lost all faith in the ability of the labeling and such to mean anything. When we got bugs, we sprayed. If we didn't the public health would have closed us down and of course we got bugs, inevitably. We would have got them through the walls if not in the merchandise. I figure that somewhere along the chain anything organic I buy will have been contaminated. Instead I try to keep the processing chain as short as possible. So local blueberries, frozen is a short processing chain, where California raspberries fresh is a long processing chain where I live.

My favourite thing I have been able to come up with is immune system training, which requires me to introduce myself to every friendly dog willing to thoroughly lick my face, and to lie nose down in the grass from time to time in order to inhale spores and fragments of earth. Both of these are also good for my morale.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:03 AM on November 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

Inulin is a soluble dietary fiber (defined as: you don't have the enzymes to derive nutrition from it) that your "good" gut microbiota really likes.

It's available where dietary fiber (like metamucil/psyllium) can be found. It dissolves completely in water, tastes slightly sweet.

Instead of eating probiotics, it's like pet food for the good microbes in your gut.
posted by porpoise at 10:50 AM on November 17, 2017

First, do you still have your tonsils?

Because there are two major concentrations of lymphoid tissue along the alimentary canal, the appendix and the tonsils, and it's recently been shown that the appendix functions to restore bacteria in the large intestine when they've been depleted for some reason, and I think it will emerge in the next few years that the tonsils have a complementary function; namely, to select, condition, and adapt bacteria in your mouth for a role in the rest of your GI tract.

In this scenario, the hated tonsil stones which form in the tonsilar crypts are like kefir beads which convey the cultured bacteria to the bowels.

The implications of this for probiotics is that if they contain beneficial bacteria, they will probably do much better if you eat them rather than take them in pill form; and that organic fruits and vegetables are probably better from a probiotic point of view because they will have been visited by a much larger number of insects which undoubtedly use bacteria to break those fruits and vegetables down when they eat them, and the insects will have deposited those bacteria on the foods, thereby making those bacteria available to you (a corollary to this is that it's better to eat your organic fruits and vegetables raw, and wash them very lightly).

By the way, if there's anything to all this, you might expect tonsils to play a role in bowel health, and indeed: History of Tonsillectomy is Associated With Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
posted by jamjam at 11:54 AM on November 17, 2017

Short answer: it's a lot more complicated than you think, and noone (yet) is in a position to give much in the way of clear advice on best practice for gut health.

Scientists are only just starting to map out the interactions between hundreds of different bacteria and thousands of different permutations of the combinations they're found in plus their reaction to individual differences in gut environment.

There have been a very few findings of dramatically beneficial cause / effect conditions - lactobacillus probiotics clearing up some post infection diarrhoea cases, fecal transplants curing clostridium difficile infection after heavy antibiotic treatment. But these are very much the exception rather than the rule.

If you're interested in the detail, I'd strongly recommend the very readable book I Contain Multitudes as a pretty current, in depth but still popular pitched run-down of the state of research in the area.

There are sadly not too many easy takeaways; those that can be easily condensed are:

Avoid taking antibiotics wherever possible.

Let fresh air into the environment you live in regularly and avoid cleaning it too fastidiously with tons of antiseptic.

Eat more soluble dietary fiber, which generally "feeds" those gut bacteria that have an anti inflammatory effect - raw chicory, bananas, or jerusalem artichokes have the highest levels of this.
posted by protorp at 12:47 PM on November 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Eating a large variety of foods is a good idea, especially fruits and veggies. I've heard using both fermented foods AND the combination of probiotics is better than just one or the other, with homemade fermented foods being king. The probiotic called VSL-3 is supposed to be an amazing probiotic. Eat things like homemade sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt with each meal, or at least something every day. I make my own kombucha now and it is easy, and it helps with my digestion for sure. Use a very good digestive enzyme. Honestly, if you have any major health issues or digestive stuff, go gluten and/or possibly grain and dairy free for awhile to give your body a chance to heal, while you repopulate your gut with good bacteria.

Bone broth, again homemade if possible, is very good for the gut. Lemon water, apple cider vinegar, dandelion, ginger, garlic.... all good things for the body and gut.

As someone said above, avoid antibiotics if you can. Once or twice a year, do some short juice fasts. And finally if you can afford it, work with a naturopath or nutritionist if you really want to do all this right. Good health will change your life...!
posted by Rocket26 at 1:23 PM on November 17, 2017

After 16 weeks on antibiotics this summer/fall, I've been reading a LOT and trying to rebuild my own gut biome. I won't repeat a lot of the advice above - but I will caution to take things slowly. Don't go from nothing to 16 oz of kombucha + kefir + fermented foods all at once. Your body will rebel. There will be gas (ooh boy will there be gas) and GI discomfort. Instead, add a couple tablespoons at a time, gradually, and let your body adjust to its new friends.

Also, lots and lots of water as you're adding and adjusting to help keep things moving.
posted by writermcwriterson at 1:37 PM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

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