Is your mouth watering yet?Welcome to a day in the life of the average American. In the medical world, this if often referred to as SAD (Standard American Diet). While most folks simply write this off as a “sign of the times” (aka overworked, undernourished, and sleep deprived), I bet they have no idea on the metabolic and physiological ramifications of their nutrition choices. There’s a fine bacterial balance at play within your GI tract and your lifestyle, sleep, nutrition, and training. All play a marked role in influencing this balance in a positive or negative manner. For example, here’s what we know happens when the ratio of good to bad bacteria skews (aka a state of maladaptation known as “dysbiosis”):
- Development of food/environmental allergies
- Altered nutrient absorption
- Reduced stage I, II, and III detoxification within the liver
- Increased prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and certain types of cancer
- Disrupted endocrine responses to stress, sleep, and normal activity
And the list continues…The health of your gut impacts every single physiological function. The microorganisms in your microbiome outnumber every other cell in your body by 10 to 1. If you’re interested in improvements to your health, performance, or body composition, then maybe it’s time to turn from your focus from macros and cardio to what’s happening internally.
The Probiotics PanaceaProbiotics are popular these days. Many coaches and medical practitioners assume they are a cure-all for acute GI related disturbances and alterations in the gut microbiome. Before we dive in, keep in mind this article is somewhat simplistic in nature. It won't even begin to cover the immensely complex nature of host/microbe interactions via pre/probiotics, epigenetics, and environmental factors. Think of your gut (aka the microbiome) as an ecosystem. Some ecosystems require lots of rain and like wet environments. Others prefer more arid climates with little moisture. If you tried to force all ecosystems to exist in the same climate regardless of geographical location, some would fail and others would flourish. This is essentially part of the ideology behind probiotics usage. For some folks, they can provide benefit.
However, the big caveat in this situation is this:
- Correct strain(s)
- Appropriate dosage (CFUs)
- Active live organisms
“Consumption Does NOT Equal Colonization.”Just because you consume a probiotic doesn't ensure adequate colonization. Your gut has billions of microorganisms present. A "general" probiotic (often prescribed by a GP) is basically equivalent to a raindrop in the ocean. Not only that, certain strains of probiotics feed off specific prebiotics (aka the different components of food - fiber, certain types of sugar, etc.). If you don’t have those prebiotics in your diet, then obviously the bacteria can't survive without fuel. Increase the diversity in your gut and get exposed to more microbes. Then, support their growth by feeding them with the requisite components which support their growth and colonization.
Individualize Don’t StandardizeBefore you jump on the probiotic bandwagon, keep in mind that microbiome research is still in its infancy. Despite the marketing hype, data continues to emerge showcasing the need for patient individualization. For example, a recent paper published in the journal of Celltitled, “Post-Antibiotic Gut Mucosal Microbiome Reconstitution Is Impaired by Probiotics and Improved by Autologous FMT” noted probiotics weren’t beneficial after antibiotic treatment. They also slowed the recolonization of some subject’s natural bacterial balance. Eran Elinav, an immunologist and senior research on the paper noted the following: "People have thrown a lot of support to probiotics, even though the literature underlying our understanding of them is very controversial; we wanted to determine whether probiotics (such as the ones you buy in the supermarket) actually colonize the gastrointestinal tract like they're supposed to and whether they are having any impact on the human host. Surprisingly, we saw that many healthy volunteers were actually resistant in that the probiotics couldn't colonize their GI tracts. This suggests that probiotics should not be universally given as a 'one-size-fits-all' supplement. Instead, they could be tailored to the needs of each individual. Contrary to the current dogma that probiotics are harmless and benefit everyone, these results reveal a new potential adverse side effect of probiotic use with antibiotics that might bring long-term consequences. In contrast, replenishing the gut with one's own microbes is a personalized mother-nature-designed treatment that led to a full reversal of the antibiotics' effects.”
So, Now What?Don’t get me wrong, probiotics can play a beneficial role in combating immune system insults such as yeast overgrowth in the GI tract (e.g. saccharomyces boulardii). But they are a tool in the toolbox. They don’t solve all the multifaceted GI issues which currently plague our society. Given what we’ve just discussed, this begs the question. If not probiotics, then what should we use to improve gut health? That topic in and of itself is worthy of an entire book. But, here are a few simple suggestions to help increase the diversity and residual populations of bacteria in your gut without having to worry about probiotic supplementation:
- EAT 1-3 NEW FRUITS AND VEGETABLES WEEKLY:Dietary diversity is directly linked to microbial diversity. If your weekly schedule consists of bagels for breakfast, hot pockets for lunch, and sesame chicken for dinner, your gut will probably get jacked up.
- GO FOR A HIKE: Nature has the most diverse microbiome currently known to man. If you’re wondering why you have a poor array of microorganisms within your gut, maybe it’s because you live in a hyper-sterile Lysol bubble. Get outside and get dirty.
- GROW A GARDEN: Spending time in well-manicured soil helps to expose you to a diverse array of microorganisms. Better yet, after you’ve harvested food from your garden, don’t wash and scrub it excessively. A gentle rinse is fine as you want some of the microorganisms to remain intact to colonize within the gut. Buy from a farmer’s market or local community-supported agriculture (CSA).
- ENTRAIN PROPER CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS:GI Mucosa and bacterial populations have a 24 cycle just like everything else in your body. If you are bathing in blue light once the sun has gone down and spending every waking moment indoors, your GI tract probably won't be as robust as it could be.