Gut health is all the rage these days in the health and fitness world—and for good reason. As we learn more about our bodies, we’ve learned a ton about the microbiome and its importance on your overall health. But could a microbiome imbalance or problem be the reason you’re not seeing results at the gym, or why you can’t lose those last five or 10 pounds no matter how hard you diet? Let’s take a minute to figure out what exactly the microbiome is and what you can do to keep the microbiome in your gut in tip top shape.
What Is the Microbiome?
Many health and fitness advocates argue that the microbiome is the future of medicine. Surely we’ve all heard about good bacteria and bad bacteria by now, but did you know your body has 10 times as many bacteria as it does cells? In other words, we’re comprised of more bacteria than actual human cells! Sounds scary right?
Before you go running for that bottle of hand sanitizer, keep this in mind: not all bad bacteria are bad. Of course, there are the bacteria that cause pink eye and ear infections, but that’s not the kind of bacteria I’m talking about. I’m talking about the good bacteria that can help ward of disease, improve digestion, and even change your brain chemistry for the better—and that’s exactly what the microbiome is. A sophisticated ecosystem of good bacteria, the microbiome is the foundation of a healthy gut and a healthy life. Various strains of bacteria all communicate with one another—even feeding off of each other’s byproducts—to create an environment that fights disease and promotes longevity.
Here’s one last tid bit about the microbiome that’s incredibly interesting. Whenever you hear the words ‘antibiotic resistant bacteria,’ do you shudder for a split second? While that’s certainly something we don’t want happening with dangerous and harmful bacteria, a bacteria’s ability to genetically mutate and adapt to its environment is incredibly advantageous for the good bacteria lining our gut. Compared to our own cells that take generations to permanently mutate, probiotics/good bacteria can mutate and better serve our bodies fairly quickly. This makes them even more important in improving our immunity and maintaining good health.
Problems Caused By an Imbalanced Microbiome
Because the microbiome is so important to our overall wellbeing, we can link a lot of problems to an imbalanced microbiome. This isn’t to say that the microbiome is the source of all illness, but you’d be surprised to see how many problems stem from it such as:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
- Food Allergies and Intolerances
- Celiac Disease
- Crohn’s Disease/Ulcerative Colitis/ IBD
- Leaky Gut Syndrome
- Unexpected Weight Gain
- Hormonal Imbalances
- Low Energy Levels
The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation for America has identified a faulty microbiome as being a potential reason for the increase of diagnoses and other gastrointestinal problems. And in case you aren’t familiar with SIBO, it’s basically where the probiotics from your colon creep up into your small intestine, a part of your gut that’s ideally sterile and free from any sort of bacteria. This can cause lots of digestive issues, stomach problems, food allergies, and other unpleasant symptoms.
I bet you didn’t think an imbalanced gut could lead to weight gain, but it certainly can. It’s no secret that factory farms have been feeding livestock like cattle antibiotics for years. Sure, this might prevent disease, but new evidence suggests that antibiotic use in feed lots also leads to “growth promotion.” In other words, it makes the cows get fatter quicker. The conclusion many scientists draw from this phenomenon is that the extended ingestion of antibiotics significantly alters the compositions of the cows’ microbiomes, leading to weight gain. If this is happening to livestock, there’s a very good chance it could be happening to you or explain why you can’t see results no matter how clean you eat or how hard you work out.
How to Heal Your Gut
Fortunately, all hope is not lost. There’s a lot you can do to heal your gut and get healthy if you think a flawed microbiome is at the core of your weight gain:
- Eat Clean—You’ve heard it once, but let’s hear it again. One of the leading doctors in functional medicine, Dr. Mark Hyman talks all the time about how literally every bite of food we consume has an effect on our microbiome and gut. If you’re someone who suffers from a digestive issue or weight gain that’s caused by a microbiome imbalance, it’s more important than ever that you eat a clean diet.
- Determine Food Intolerances—Ingesting foods that you’re actually allergic/intolerant to is one of the leading causes of a microbiome imbalance. Consuming these foods can cause certain bad bacteria to overgrow and get out of hand. Try eliminating the more common food intolerances like gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, and shellfish for a few weeks and see if your symptoms improve. Then reintroduce them and see what happens.
- Eat Fermented Foods—Foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and other pickled vegetables are incredibly good for building up the good bacteria in your gut. These foods help reintroduce good bacteria into your body, making them a much more natural source of probiotics than a supplement.
- Approach Dairy with Caution—I know many of you love dairy and might be surprised when I say to approach this food group with caution. Yes, products like yogurt and kefir are rich sources of probiotics. But if you’ve got a dairy allergy, you might actually be doing yourself a disservice. Try to stick to fermented veggies for a dietary source of probiotics.
- Fill Up on Fiber—Ever wonder what exactly those good bacteria in your gut feed on? The answer is fiber. There’s no point in dumping tons of probiotics into your gut if you’re not going to provide them with an environment to thrive. Adequate fiber consumption is key to helping the good bacteria in your gut grow and develop. Probiotics in particular like root vegetables and tubers, so fill up on sweet potatoes, carrots, yams, plantains, etc.
- Talk to Your Doctor—Don’t think your gut is something you can only treat with diet and lifestyle modifications. Your doctor can actually provide you with a ton of treatments and therapies to help rebalance your microbiome. See if they’d be willing to give the drug Rifaximin. The latest studies show that although this drug is meant for people who suffer from traveler’s diarrhea, it can help with IBS and SIBO cases. Unlike traditional antibiotics that wipe all bacteria out of your gut, Rifaximin works by only attacking the bad bacteria in your body and helping to reboot your microbiome.
- Take Your Probiotic At Night—The jury is still out about this last tip, but it’s worth a shot if you suffer from major gut problems. Some health nuts argue that taking your probiotic at night is more beneficial, specifically after a gut friendly dinner with lots of fiber and fermented foods. Supposedly, the probiotics feed off of your dinner at night while you sleep, and the interrupted sleep cycle gives them a better time to multiply and grow. Just a little food for thought!
Determining if your weight gain is caused by a microbiome imbalance can be tricky, but if you suspect your gut is the source of the problem there’s plenty you can do. Even if you don’t suffer from overt gut issues, it’s important to maintain good digestive health to keep you lean and fit! For more information about the microbiome, check out this fantastic lecture by Gut_Goddess, an insightful pharmacologist that knows a thing or two when it comes to our guts.