Did you know that you’re more bacteria than human? You have more microbes living in and on you than you do human cells, and they are absolutely crucial for your survival. This collection of microbes–called your microbiota–helps you digest food, generate certain vitamins, regulate metabolism and immune function, and even dictates your moods. In your digestive tract, it’s often referred to as gut flora because it’s a complex ecological system. I want to teach you how to boost your gut flora in three easy steps and why it’s so important for health.
Here’s where I usually use the metaphor that your gut flora is like a garden that needs to be tended and fertilized properly so it grows, and in turn, gifts you with good health and better digestion. You don’t get a manual on how to be a human, but learning to properly nurture your microbes with diet, probiotics, and non-toxic lifestyle choices is an important part!
Sadly, our modern diets, medications, and lifestyles aren’t compatible with hosting a healthy and diverse microbiota, and our health is suffering as a result. Many modern metabolic ills such as type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disease, cancer, inflammatory conditions, and of course IBS and IBD have a connection to poor gut health and poor diversity of gut microbes. (source)
We are really just now scratching the surface of what there is to know about our microbiota, the colonies of bacteria, viruses, yeast, and single-celled organisms with which we share body space. These trillions of single-celled organisms live in our digestive tracts, on our skin, in our mouths, and just about everywhere in between. There’s even evidence of a microbiome in the brain and breast.
We couldn’t live without these microbes: they perform functions that our regular cells can’t. We have about 500 different species of microorganisms in our digestive tracts alone (more on other parts of our bodies), and the more the better: We know that microbial diversity makes us healthier. The more different types of bacteria you have, the better your overall health.
Before we get going, let’s clear something up. You’ve likely heard the term microbiome and assume it refers to these microbial colonies, but the term microbiome actually refers to the genetic material of these microbes. That’s right– these single-celled organisms have millions of genes (I’ve seen estimates anywhere from 1 million to 3 million, but we really don’t know for sure), whereas humans only have about 23,000 genes. So that’s why we’re more bacterial or microbial than we are human. (pause and ponder that for a moment).
Our gut microbiota mostly exist in a symbiotic (beneficial) way with us, but some are pathogenic (harmful) or commensal/opportunistic (neutral, but will take over if given the opportunity). This is all fine, because the bad guys, usually viruses or potentially harmful bacteria, challenge our immune system to make it stronger. But in an unhealthy host (one that’s been eating too much sugar and not enough plants, for example), the bad guys can take over the good guys. Then you have a condition called dysbiosis which can eventually cause health problems.
How Do You Know if Your Gut Flora Needs Attention?
- Are you sluggish?
- Do you have heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, regular indigestion?
- Yeast infections, IBS, IBD, candida?
- Do you burp and fart your way through the day?
- Have you taken antibiotics frequently or lately?
- Frequent use of antacids?
- Do you eat a lot of sugar (more than 25 grams of added sugar daily?), drink sodas, eat processed foods more often than fresh, whole foods?
- Do you have autoimmune disease?
- Joint pain or inflammatory conditions?
- Do you see undigested food in your stool? (read more on if your poop is normal here)
- Do you struggle with anxiety and depression?
- Do you have joint pain?
- Do you have high blood sugar or type 2 diabetes?
- Have you been through cancer treatments, chemo?
- Have you taken hormonal birth control?
These are all signs that your gut flora has taken a hit. Don’t worry though; the microbes in your gut are incredibly resilient. In fact, studies show your gut flora can bounce back in as few as 3-4 days in changing your diet. (source) AND your gut cells turn over at a fast rate, so you have a new gut lining about every 2 weeks. It’s easier than you think to heal your gut with food!
Side note: While the food piece is a start, if you have dysbiosis, leaky gut, SIBO, candida, IBS, or IBD, you will need additional attention above and beyond changing your diet.
How to Boost Your Gut Flora in 3 Steps
First off, WHY is it important to have a healthy and diverse gut microbiome? The short answer is: you’ll be healthier for your efforts. Your gut interacts with your immune system in complex ways to keep you free from illness and disease. It also affects inflammation in your body. And your gut bacteria help you break down and absorb nutrients from the food you eat. The more your microbial populations dwindle, the less effective they are at keeping you healthy. Read more about the complex interaction between immune system and gut here.
Here are 3 easy steps you can take right away to boost your gut flora.
You can tackle these all at once, or if you don’t have the bandwidth for that, start with step 1 and work your way through. If you have digestive issues that have been bothering you, I recommend stool testing to get a look under the hood. I like and use the GI MAP test in my practice, which you can order here.
Step One: Clean up your diet & boost intake of vegetables of all types. Read all about my microbiome superfoods here, including prebiotic fiber-rich foods like cruciferous veggies, radishes, alliums, and banana particularly. Don’t forget about the gut healing foods like ferments, bone broth, and resistant starch (read more here). And tea, for example, is great for your gut too! I love the Pique digestive health teas (click here to see my fave). Teas offer amazing polyphenols that are anti-inflammatory and great for gut health.
Ideally you want to get rid of the foods that destroy your gut flora, and those are processed foods (think Doritos, microwave meals, Rice a Roni, ramen noodles), sugary candy and junk foods, and refined foods like white flour and white sugar. Please also ditch the sodas and artificial sweeteners. Aspartame and other fake sugars really do a (bad) number on your gut and overall health. I recommend an anti-inflammatory diet (<– click here to read more about that) with the microbiome superfoods. If you want even more help here, check out my 21 day gut reset which gets you 3 weeks of my personally designed gut healing meals.
Step Two: Check your meds. Medications like NSAIDs and antacids destroy your gut flora. While NSAIDs have a place (injury, for example), if you’re using them for ongoing pain, you’re risking gastritis and other adverse side effects (even cardiovascular). Try curcumin, which has outperformed NSAID in clinical trials. Great for arthritis and chronic pain. And antacids have disturbing side effects. The FDA has even issued a warning against their longterm use. Some side effects include: bacterial overgrowth, disease risk (cancer), and inability to absorb nutrients. Scary stuff. Check out my article here about how to get rid of heartburn without drugs (and the underlying cause).
Step Three: Lifestyle and environment. Check your personal care and home cleaning products. Body care products, for example, contain chemicals that are absorbed through your skin and circulate throughout your system. Many are not tested for safety and include endocrine and gut-disrupting toxins. I have several posts on how to clean up your body care products! I make a lot of my own skin care items just because store-bought brands scare me with ingredients I cannot pronounce. Check out this post for my anti-aging beauty serum and this post for my DIY anti-aging skin cream. Read here how to reduce toxins in your life.
For more detailed info on how to refurbish your gut flora, check out my 4 step gut reset here.
Want Even More Help Fixing Your Gut? The 21 Day Gut Reset is for YOU!
Please consider joining my 21 day gut reset program. You can join at any time, as it’s a self-paced e-course. All you need is a little motivation and an email address to join! Check out everything you’ll get:
- 3 weeks of gut healing meal plans personally designed by ME, a real, live nutritionist!
- get rid of bloating, constipation, heartburn, gas, and indigestion
- have more energy, better focus, a flatter belly, glowing skin!
- receive a daily email for 21 days to help you heal your gut
- includes a 21 day meal plan: gluten, dairy, soy, refined sugar free
- 80+ easy & delicious gut healing recipes
- shopping list
- access to our private support group where you can ask questions and get even more info!
- a chart to help you build meals
- info on supplements you may need to enhance your journey
- Click here to join us!
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.