The microbiome has become one of the most promising areas of health research over the past decade. We have made great strides in learning about the importance of the bugs living in our gut and how they are connected to every aspect of our wellbeing.
Learning how to increase gut microbiome diversity should be viewed as an important step towards optimal health. In this article, we discuss the key lifestyle factors that influence the types, amounts and diversity of these microbes.
What is the gut microbiome?
The term ‘microbiome’ refers to a community of micro-organisms that can be found living together in your gut. These ‘microbes’ number in the trillions and can be found throughout your intestinal tract.
The gut microbiota plays an essential role in metabolism, immune function, protection against pathogens and maintenance of the gut mucosal layer. Every person has their own unique set of microbes that predict how they react to the environment around them.
Diet is arguably the biggest lever that can be used to alter the composition of your gut microbiome. Studies show that genetics, medications, environmental toxins and age can also have positive or negative effects on its diversity.
Why is gut microbiome diversity important?
Studies looking at the diversity of microbes living in the gut have led us to an increased realization of how vital these microbes are for overall health. In fact, we have multiple studies showing that poor metabolic health is associated with a less diverse microbiome.
Data looking at the link between microbiome makeup and chronic disease demonstrate its impact on a wide array of modern health issues. Blood sugar spikes, mood disorders, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and eczema are all associated with a lack of microbiome diversity.
On the flipside; maintaining a larger variety of healthy gut bacteria in your later years has been associated with improved markers of longevity. Another impressive study looked at the microbiome of long-lived families and discovered that microbiome diversity was linked to reduced inflammation, improved brain function and a stronger immune system.
The totality of evidence makes it clear that fostering a diverse colony of gut bacteria is incredibly important to our overall health and wellbeing.
5 ways to increase gut microbiome diversity
1. Eat a wide variety of healthy foods.
‘Eat the rainbow’ is a term that has been around for centuries…and for good reason! Filling your plate with a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans is a great way to increase gut microbiome diversity.
Each different food will provide food for a specific species of gut bacteria. According to one study: “The more diverse the diet, the more diverse the microbes”. Simple yet effective advice.
The problem is that many people find themselves stuck in a loop of consistently buying the same foods at the grocery store. However, researchers at the American Gut Project found that eating more than 30 different plant foods per week is enough to see a significant improvement in microbiome diversity.
One great way to incorporate more plant foods into your diet is by shopping for weird and wonderful produce at the farmers market. You may also consider switching up the type of grain you add to each meal, or maybe creating a jar filled with a ‘pick-n-mix’ of nuts and seeds that you can throw into your salads.
2. Eat a high fiber diet.
Dietary fiber is the fuel that feeds your gut bacteria. It’s often referred to as ‘prebiotic’, since it avoids digestion in the small intestine and provides ample energy for the microbes living in your colon.
Studies show that microbes in your gut produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) when feasting on fiber. These SCFAs get absorbed into your circulatory system and may have a positive influence on inflammation, metabolic health and weight regulation.
The best type of fiber to boost microbiome diversity is known as ‘soluble’ fiber. It makes a gel-like substance in your digestive tract that can easily be accessed by bacteria.
Some foods that are especially high in soluble fiber include:
- Black beans, lima beans, soy beans.
- Chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds.
- Broccoli, brussels sprouts.
- Passion fruit, apricots, nectarines.
3. Eat plenty of resistant starch.
Resistant starch is a form of carbohydrate that is resistant to digestion in the small intestine. It passed through to the large intestine still intact and is then fermented by your gut microbes.
Greater intake of resistant starch has shown to be beneficial in improving a number of health outcomes by feeding bacteria that produce a SCFA known as butyrate. Increasing the amount of butyrate produced in your gut has been linked to reduced risk of colon cancer and reduced inflammation.
Resistant starch can be found in several common plant-based foods. In addition, some foods contain starch that can be made resistant by cooking and then cooling them before ingestion.
Some foods highest in resistant starch include:
- Cooked and cooled rice, potatoes, pasta
- Pinto beans, black beans, soy beans
- Green ‘unripe’ bananas
One great way of increasing your resistant starch intake is to bulk cook your carb sources and allow them to cool in the fridge until you’re ready to use them. I’m sure your microbes will be appreciative.
4. Eat probiotic foods.
Probiotic is a term given to foods that contain live bacteria. These live bacteria mirror the beneficial bacteria that populate your gut and can provide many benefits.
The creation of probiotic foods involves the process of fermentation which results in the production of beneficial microorganisms that continue to survive in your gut long after your last meal. Ingesting this bacteria can increase microbiome diversity, lower inflammation and may provide a host of short and long-term health benefits.
We have seen a dramatic decrease in the need to preserve foods through fermentation with the recent rise in the availability of refrigeration. This has led to a significant decrease in the diversity and makeup of most people’s gut microbiome and may be linked to a host of modern diseases.
Boosting your intake of probiotics can be a fun, interesting and delicious adventure. Some of the most well-known fermented foods you may want to incorporate include:
- Certain ‘raw’ cheeses (gouda, cheddar, feta).
5. Spend more time in nature.
Studies show that environment plays a huge role in the makeup of our microbiome. In fact, it’s even been classed as more important than genetics in determining the diversity of our gut bugs.
Another interesting study compared those living in nature with populations living in the city. The researchers found that rural communities had a more diverse microbiome and greater numbers of health promoting bacteria.
We also know that getting away from the polluted air of the big cities may positively impact the makeup of your microbiome. In fact, spending just 2 hours per week in the countryside may lead to better health and wellbeing.
Here are a few tips on how to improve microbiome diversity by spending time in nature:
- Exercise outdoors by taking nature walks, hiking and cycling.
- Get a vegetable patch or take up gardening (associated with increased healthy gut bacteria).
- Take your lunch breaks outside whenever possible.
- Add some natural plants to your living space.
- Plan activities with family and friends that involve nature (e.g. visiting parks and gardens).
BONUS: 5 things to avoid that may harm your microbiome.
- Antibiotics can be lifesaving, but are major disruptors of gut microbiota. Try to avoid them unless absolutely necessary.
- Consuming excess quantities of alcohol has been shown to negatively impact the microbiome. If you do fancy a drink; red wine might be the best option, since it has polyphenols that may increase microbiome diversity.
- It seems like smoking negatively impacts nearly every aspect of our health and wellbeing. In one study, they showed that smoking cessation increased the diversity of healthy gut bacteria. More evidence that stopping smoking is a great idea.
- Leading a high stress lifestyle may have a significant impact on your microbes. One interesting study looking at college students found that beneficial bacteria was decreased in the buildup to stressful exams.
- Chronic pesticide intake has been associated with negative changes in the gut microbiome. Steering away from these chemicals has become increasingly difficult in the modern food environment. Potentially food for thought when deciding if you should buy organic.
Increasing evidence points to the gut microbiome being the apex of human health. It leads us to believe that focusing on increasing the diversity of microbes we have can play a major role in protecting us against a range of chronic disease states.
The evidence suggests that living a life that’s good for our microbes is also aligned with our overall wellbeing. Eating plenty of whole plant foods, getting sufficient time in nature and decreasing our exposure to toxins are all actions that will ensure great health in a variety of ways.
Just remember that you’re not only feeding your appetite; you’re also feeding your microbes.