The race is on as researchers try to discover the best path to gut health and what microbes should be there. Will we ever know what gut bacteria we are supposed to have? Probably not.
It would be a difficult task under any circumstance, but what makes it impossible is the constant evolving nature of our gut microflora. Everything we are exposed to – the air, the dirt, the lack of dirt, the trees and even our pets all affect which strains of microbes will be in our gut and on our skin at any given time.
As a matter of fact, you and Fido share the same microbial diversity along with all the other members of your family. In other words, the family that stays together, grows microbes together. Remember that the next time, Fido or Mittens licks your face – they are kindly sharing their microbes with you so no more saying “Ewww” when it happens.
Recent studies involving different tribes in Africa have shown a cornucopia of bacteria strains not found in people from Western cultures. In fact, they also have higher levels of bad bacteria and parasites that have been linked to specific diseases such as Crohn’s Disease or IBS yet they do not get these diseases or any of the other conditions linked to poor gut health and lack of good bacteria.
There has also been a study looking the rate of parasites in relation to Alzheimer’s disease. In less developed cultures where there were higher levels of parasites, there were lower levels of Alzheimer’s disease.
Why? There is no explanation at this time but Alzheimer’s has been linked to inflammation in the brain and our beneficial gut microbes inhibit inflammation throughout the body, including the brain.
It seems that a greater diversity of organisms builds a stronger group of beneficial microbes and a better immune system that helps ward off disease.
Whether it is the Hadza tribe, or the Mossi tribe in Africa, their exposure to more of the world around them, seems to give them more protection. The Bantu tribe, like most tribes, stone grinds their grains. They do not wash the stones and they do it outside where the grains and stones will be exposed to dirt microbes and other organisms from the environment. They too, have more diversity than we do.
This may sound familiar. The concept known as the “hygiene theory”, discusses this very point. We are too clean and we are not as exposed to microbes from the air, the dust, the dirt and animals as we used to be. This has lowered diversity and even changed the composition of our microbial strains.
And just like our immune system requires exposure to bacteria and viruses to make it strong and have a bank of antibodies, our microflora also becomes more active and strong from exposure to other microbes.
What is really interesting is that exposure to the different environmental microbes does not mean that they will colonize inside of us. They mainly just pass through but while they are there, they help improve the overall health and diversity of the gut.
There are some exceptions that stay such as certain parasites but they seem to have a symbiotic relationship with our good bacteria and help keep us strong as long the good guys are there in sufficient numbers.
So what can you do to promote your microbial diversity?
- Avoid chemical cleaners and antibacterial products. Materials such as baking soda, vinegar as well as good, old, natural soap and water are all you need when you are cleaning your house or washing your hands.
- Eat fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha which, although they do contain some strains similar to us, they also contain strains that are different from our own.
- Making your own fermented foods means that they will have strains that are native to your home environment
- Go outside. Walk barefoot in the dirt, touch the trees, breath the air in the forest and get wet in the lake or the ocean. All of these activities increase your exposure to microbes that will help create greater diversity.
- Probiotics and prebiotics can also be helpful to your gut health and promote the microbes that are natural to you.
- Love your pets and let them love you. Pet them and when they lick you in return, remind yourself they just did you a favour. More importantly, feed them good quality food that is right for them and give them probiotic and prebiotic foods* so they have good gut health. This way, when they lick you, it will be worth your while.
*I feed my cats homemade milk kefir as their probiotic and chlorella as the prebiotic. As an algae, chlorella has other microbial benefits as well. The way I see it, by feeding chlorella to my cats, I do not have to have it myself. They can just lick me and give me the benefits (I am kidding – sort of)
If you want to learn more about the benefits of fermented foods and how to make your own , check out the Simply Fermentation Online Workshop
- The hygiene theory: fact or fiction? Sheikh A1, Strachan DP, Curr Opin Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2004 Jun;12(3):232-6.
- Impact of diet in shaping gut microbiota revealed by a comparative study in children from Europe and rural Africa Carlotta De Filippoa et al, PNAS August 17, 2010 vol. 107 no. 33
- Hygiene and the world distribution of Alzheimer’s Disease, Molly Fox et al, EMPH (2013): eot015