You may have heard the word microbiome thrown around a lot recently and basically what it means is the make-up of bacteria in our digestive tract (ie. our gut). Our gut is like a mini eco system made up of over 90% bacteria, a third of which is common for everyone however two-thirds is specific for each individual.
Many things can affect how your microbiome is formed and the more varied strains of beneficial bacteria present the better. During childhood is when this can vary the most which is why it can often be encouraged to let children play in the dirt and be exposed to as many environments as possible. Other things that can affect our microbiome are illness, medications, stress and of course the food we eat.
There is more and more research being funded for the influence of our microbiome on our overall health with findings suggesting it is related to many things from immunity, how we store fat, regulating glucose levels, controlling appetite, digestion, mental health, hormone and neurotransmitter production and determining our disease risk.
So it is fair to say that building up ones microbiome with beneficial bacteria should be a key consideration with our diets. But does this mean guzzling bottles of kombucha, shoveling in mouthfuls of saurkraut and gulping down some kefir for dessert? Not quite! Our digestive tract is very sensitive and reactive (a change in diet can change your microbiome in just a few days) and too many fermented or bioactive foods can cause a lot of fermentation and production of acids leading to digestive distress.
So what is good for out gut and how much is recommended?
In general the best foods that have been shown to produce healthy microbes is one full of vegetables, fruits, legumes, wholegrains, extra virgin olive oil, yoghurt, dairy, nuts, seeds and fish due the fatty acid profile and high levels of antioxidants, polyphenols and fibre in these foods. Below are some other popular products that are good for some extra gut lovin:
Fermented Vegetables: This includes saurkraut, kim chi and all of the other combinations available today. Start small with 1 teaspoon a few times per week and build up to a tablespoon at a meal (particularly to complement red meat which can be quite taxing to digest). Look out for products that have been heat treated (note you can pick these products as they will be stored on the shelf not the in the fridge). Heat treatment will kill off bacteria, good and bad, as well as enzymes so the benefits will not be present in these products.
Kefir: This is a fermented milk similar to a drinking style yoghurt. Start with a tablespoon with a meal and then you can gradually build up to 1/2 cup per day. Look out for products with added artificial flavours and sugars - the ingredients should just be whole milk, kefir cultures and other cultures (and maybe water, milks solids).
Kombucha: This is a fermented effervescent drink made from tea. As discussed in my post 'what is the deal with kombucha' you want to start small with just 30ml per day and then build up 1/2 to 1 cup per day. Keep in mind this is less then the serving of a bottle you would usually buy so drink half, and keep half for another time. Look out for products with added sugar, the only sugar should be what was used in the ferment process and this should be negligible on the label of the final product.
Bone Broth: bone broth is not a fermented product and is benefits come more from it's healing properties to the cells lining our digestive tract. Because of this, there is less caution to start small so you can enjoy a cup per day and even add to curries, stews, soups or other meals where a regular stock might be called for.
Prebiotics: these are generally overlooked for gut health but are super important as prebiotics are what feeds the probiotics and allows our microbiome to flourish. Prebiotics include onion, garlic, leek, asparagus, artichoke, tempeh, miso, banana, chicory root, oats, barley and flaxseeds.
If you are looking to improve your gut health first look at bulking out your diet with mostly plant foods, including some healthy fats such as oily fish, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds and you can't go past a multi strain probiotic supplement which is a concentrated source of the beneficial bacteria. The above fermented foods will also be a great addition to your diet although be sure to start small and build your way up, keeping in mind you don't have to have all of these every day.