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This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Featured Author Jane Birch.
Our rapidly expanding knowledge of the human microbiome is revolutionizing our understanding of who we are as human beings. I’ve enjoyed sharing some of this research with Meridian readers. Here are the three articles I’ve shared so far:
- The Mighty Microbes in Your Body
- The Good and Bad News about Our Microbiome
- Let’s Save Our Microbial Heritage!
Our religion teaches us that we aren’t solitary individuals; we are one large family of God, mutually dependent on and responsible to each other. Now we understand that our body is not a solitary substance. It too is a community. 10% of our cells are human; the other 90% belong to the microbes we house. Just as they depend on us for their existence, we depend on them for ours, and we must work together to succeed.
We need to stop thinking of microbes as “germs” to be exterminated. From the beginning, we have co-evolved with these tiny critters, and we long ago learned to take good care of each other. These are not interlopers in our bodies, strangers we merely co-exist with. In very real ways, we are good friends, ancient friends.
Of course a few rogue pathogens have certainly done more than their share of damage to human populations in the past. They’ve given microorganisms a bad rap. Unfortunately, many of the methods we’ve used to wipe out bad bacteria have been just as lethal to good bacteria. This has led to a status of “dysbiosis,” an unhealthy balance of microbes in our bodies. Research links the dysbiosis in our guts with the skyrocketing rate of serious, even life-threatening diseases such as:
- allergies, asthma, and hay fever
- gastrointestinal disorders
- autoimmune disease
The science of the human microbiome is in its infancy. Not even the experts have all the answers, but an impressive amount of data suggests certain key practices. As leading researchers put it, “Not enough research has been done to connect all the dots, but there are already an overwhelming number of arrows all pointed in the same direction.” In fact, researchers on the gut microbiome have been so impressed with the convergence of the data that they have already made significant lifestyle changes in their own lives and are encouraging others to do the same.
The following are five ways the data suggest we can take better care of our microbiome. Please note these are not intended as medical advice. If you have chronic disease, you should consult with competent medical authorities before making radical changes to your diet or lifestyle. For the evidence supporting these recommendations and for more information, please see the Recommended Resources below.
5 Ways to Care for Your Microbiome
- Help children get off to a good start.
The first few years of life are some of the most important ones for establishing the healthy microbiome needed to serve our children throughout their lives. We can’t go back and redo our birth or the birth of our children, but those who are still in their child-bearing years can use this information, and we can all share it with interested others who are pregnant or may get pregnant. I know I’ve felt compelled to get this information out to every interested person I know.
It starts with the mother’s microbiome.
We’ve always known that the health of the mother is important to the health of the growing child. What we now know is that the health of the mother’s microbiome is also very important. Microbes play a role even in the womb. Then, during birth the infant moves through the birth canal, picking up a huge dose of the mother’s microbiome that sets the stage for the rest of baby’s life. The healthier the mother’s microbiome is, the better off the child is right from birth. Mothers can care for their microbiome by eating a high fiber diet and considering other recommendations in this article.
Choose vaginal birth.
The way a baby is delivered has a huge impact on the type of microbiota that gets populated in the baby. Babies born C-section have much more of the microbiota from the mother’s skin. Babies born vaginally inherit a richer, more diverse set of microbiota. One in three births in the U.S. are Caesarean. Some of these are medically necessary, but where possible, choose a vaginal birth.
If a baby must be born C-section, some experts now recommend using vaginal fluids from the mother and doing a quick wipe-down of the newborn infant to transfer more of the bacteria that the baby would have received if born vaginally. This is something expectant parents would need to discuss with the doctor before delivery.
Breastfeed the baby.
For many reasons, breastfeeding is best for the infant, and it is critical for the development of the baby’s microbiome. One of the main ingredients of breast milk is a collection of complex carbohydrates (called “human milk oligosaccharides”) which are not digestible by the baby but are tailor-made to nourish the baby’s microbiome. Artificial baby formulas do not contain this vital nutrient (and attempts to add an effective substitute have been prohibitively expensive and failed to mimic the health benefits of breast milk). Breastfeeding the baby for an extended period is also believed to be better for the microbiome.
Start the baby off with a high fiber diet.
You don’t need to buy expensive, fancy baby foods. You can easily make your own with wholesome fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. For best results avoid processed foods and animal foods.
Continue feeding children a high fiber diet throughout their growing years.
Children are notoriously picky eaters, but they learn to love, even crave, the foods we feed them. The type of food we feed them has a dramatic impact on the type of microbes that flourish in their bodies, and these microbes then have a profound influence on their food cravings. A large population of unhealthy microbes can send signals to a child’s brain and taste buds, creating strong cravings for the unhealthy food these microbes flourish on, such as sugar and processed foods. Similarly, healthy gut bacteria can send signals that encourage the consumption of healthy foods.
If a child is already “hooked” on a low fiber diet, it may not be easy to help the child to change, but helping children change their diets may be easier than helping them deal with the devastating life-long health conditions that can develop from an unhealthy microbiome.
- Welcome more diversity in microbial exposure.
We’ve long known that children raised on farms, with lots of siblings, or in families with dogs, have a lower incidence of problems like asthma, hay fever, and other allergies. The so-called “hygiene hypothesis” suggests that too clean of an environment is detrimental to a healthy microbiome. Our bodies need a wide diversity of microbes to learn to distinguish “friend” from “foe.” Dr. Robynne Chutkan explains it this way:
We need interaction with dirt and germs to train our immune system in how to respond appropriately to stimuli in our environment— what to react to and what to ignore. An immune system that doesn’t get up close and personal with enough germs early on is like a kid with overprotective parents, ill equipped to deal with problems when they inevitably happen. Inadequate exposure leads to defects in immune tolerance and a trigger-happy state of heightened activity where essential bacteria, proteins in food, and even parts of our own body (the digestive tract, in the case of IBD) are treated like the enemy and attacked.
Here are some ways to expose ourselves to more microbes.
Increase exposure to the natural world.
- Live on a farm or spend time gardening and working with the dirt.
- Open the windows and get outside.
- Live with dogs or other pets you handle frequently.
Increase exposure to other human beings.
- Live in households with lots of people.
- Regularly spend time in places where there are lots of people.
- Encourage the kids to play with other kids.
Consider artificial, but possibly useful, exposure to microbes.
- Probiotics add microbes (e.g. live bacteria and yeasts) directly to our bodies in the form of pills we can swallow. These are but a drop in the bucket, and have more of a transitory effect on our bodies, but using the right combination for our needs can make a difference in certain situations.
- Fecal (stool) transplants (from one person to another) are an even more powerful way to introduce microbes into our bodies (if we can overcome the “yuck factor”). This is not mainstream yet, but watch for this to become more and more popular (people will go to great lengths when they are desperate!).
- Abstain from products and practices that harm the microbiome.
Living in a spotless home may be great for our sanity, but learning to live with a little more dirt may be better for our microbiome. Many of the chemicals we use to clean our homes and bodies are lethal to the good bacteria on and in our bodies. When we scrub away at our bodies and hair and use strong cleansers, we can destroy healthy microbes. Many common products contain harmful microbial disruptors (like triclosan).
Of course, antibiotics actively kill the bacteria in our bodies, including the good bacteria. One course of antibiotics can disrupt the microbiome for a full year. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil, Motrin, Naprosyn, ibuprofen etc. are particularly associated with increased intestinal permeability, but most drugs and other chemicals have some negative effect on our healthy microbiome.
Relax the obsession with sanitizing our homes and bodies.
- Ditch the hand sanitizer and other antibacterial products.
- Bathe and shower the kids and ourselves less frequently.
- Use body products and home cleaning products that are gentler and more natural.
Don’t use drugs that can harm the microbiome.
- Avoid antibiotics when not absolutely needed (see Dr. Chutkan’s book for a great list of questions to ask the doctor).
- Avoid NSAIDs, birth control pills, medications, and other drugs unless absolutely needed.
- Consider allowing the body to feel uncomfortable during periods of sickness, rather than trying to cover-up every symptom with drugs which can help in the short-run but cause damage in the long-run by weakening our microbial defenses and setting us up for future disease.
- Eat a diet that nourishes your microbiome.
We Mormons should be especially interested in the type of diet that helps our microbiome flourish, for it is the same diet the Lord recommended for our use in Section 89, the Word of Wisdom.
Eat wholesome plant foods (D&C 89:10–11).
Whole plant foods are the only source of fiber so vital to our microbiome. Our healthy gut bacteria totally depend on the fiber we consume to do the magic they do for us. Yet, most Americans get less than half of even the most minimal level of needed fiber. Highly processed plant foods are lacking in fiber, and refined plant foods, such as sugar, foster the growth of less beneficial microorganisms and encourage dysbiosis. Junk food, fast food, and deep-fried foods are detrimental both for us and our microbiomes.
Fiber is found in whole fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, but legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) are especially high in fiber. Sometimes, the parts of the plants we throw away (like the skin and stalk) have the most fiber and are perfectly edible. Certain plant foods are particularly high in certain fibers (such as pectin, inulin, or resistant starch) which have specialized roles in our digestive system.
It is easy to find lists of high fiber foods. If you’d like to check your current fiber intake, use this “Quick Fiber Check.” (For more details on the fiber in each type of food, check out the handy food calculator “Cronometer.”) Note that while the research is not complete, so far there is no indication that consuming fiber in isolated forms (such as fiber supplements) has an effect anywhere near as beneficial as eating the whole foods.
Eat animal foods sparingly, if at all (D&C 89:12–13).
Animal foods (meat, dairy, and eggs) have no fiber. They are nearly 100% protein and fat. Diets high in protein and fat are known to be harmful to a healthy microbiome, and studies “show that a meat-centered diet impacts the microbiota in a way that is detrimental to health.” (S&S, p. 134). People who eat a healthy high fiber diet have microbes geared toward the fermentation of plant foods, whereas the Western diet nourishes less health-promoting microbes that specialize in degrading fat, sugar, and protein. Shifting from a plant-based diet to a diet with meat and dairy alters the gut bacteria for the worse in less than 24 hours.
Microbiome experts recommend a diet high in plant foods and low in animal foods, but not many experts insist on a totally plant-based diet. Like most people, they like eating animal foods, but that does not make those foods healthy. Not only are diets high in protein and fat (i.e. animal foods) harmful to a healthy microbiome, they are contributors to the other major chronic diseases that kill most Americans (like hearts disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes). Our microbiome has no use for animal foods for good health, nor do we. Ideally, as the Word of Wisdom recommends, they should be used them sparingly, at best.
Make grains the staff of life (D&C 89:14, 16).
Whole grains (which can include legumes) are powerhouses of healthy fiber. The Lord recommends we make them “the staff of life.” We should not be surprised that they are also foods that are very important to a healthy microbiome.
If we do not consume the healthy fiber needed to nourish our microbiome, it becomes severely compromised. Because our microbiota is so essential to digestion, harming it leaves us with a limited capacity to properly digest foods high in fiber. Thus, a vicious cycle begins. It is further compounded by the use of antibiotics and other chemicals that harm a healthy microbiome. Could this not be one of the reasons for the widespread experience many people report of not feeling good when consuming wheat (or other grains)? Perhaps they have already disrupted the microbial balance needed to properly digest those grains.
Those who preach that grains are bad for us talk about how much those grains have “changed” over time. Grains (like all plants) have changed somewhat in recent decades, but they have not changed nearly as radically as the microbes in our own bodies that are needed to effectively digest them. Rather than give up on grains (and thus perpetuate the vicious cycle) let us re-introduce them (slowly if needed) so our bodies can relearn how to digest them. If there ever comes a time when we are relying on all the stored wheat in our basements, we’ll be very grateful for a healthy microbiome that can digest that life-saving food!
Consume foods that contribute to a healthy diversity of microbes.
Eating seasonally, as recommended in D&C 89, provides a natural variety of nutrients to the body that can be beneficial to the microbiome.
Regularly adding fermented foods (cultured vegetables) can introduce a variety of beneficial bacteria to our gut flora. (While fermented animal foods also contain a variety of microbes, the negatives of consuming them outweigh the positives.)
- Learn more about caring for the microbiome and teach your children!
The scientific study of the microbiome is just beginning. We are hearing more and more about this exciting field of research, but we’ll be learning much more in the years to come. Learning about this important aspect of our bodies can give us motivation and understanding to better care for our health and help us appreciate the wise counsel in the Word of Wisdom.
What if we taught our children about the little critters inside them that depend on their good will for their survival? Too often even we adults act like we should be able to eat as we wish since we are only harming “ourselves.” Might not children be persuaded to be more careful about how they act if they realize a healthy diet and lifestyle are also important to the tiny microbes that depend on them? Could we help them to make the connection between the Lord’s counsel in the Word of Wisdom and the symbiotic relationship they have with the “worker bees” in their bodies?
See the following recommended resources for further study.
There are too many excellent resources to list all of them here. Many of them make very similar arguments, so I’ve listed just a few of the more useful and accessible resources below. In particular, I highly recommend the interview Rich Roll did with Dr. Robynne Chutkan (listed first below). I’ve listened to this interview several times and keep finding new insights!
- Rich Roll’s interview with Robynne Chutkan, “Live Dirty, Eat Clean: Robynne Chutkan, MD on Everything Microbiome,” Rich Roll podcast (November 8, 2015). (Start at about minute 12.)
- Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “How the Western Diet Has Derailed Our Evolution,” Nautilus (November 12, 2015).
- Robynne Chutkan, The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out (New York: Avery, 2015).
- Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health (New York: Penguin, 2015).
- “The Hungry Microbiome” video series by VizbiPlus (sponsored by the Australian government).
- 2015 video series by Dr. Michael Greger on the Microbiome:
Feeding Your Microbiome a Healthy Word of Wisdom Diet
For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, both for yourself and for your microbiome, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet.”
Don’t forget that if you have not been consuming a high fiber diet, it can take some time for your body to adjust to increased fiber. Here are some tips for adjusting to a higher fiber diet.
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 “Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, PhD—Top Foods to Fuel Healthy Gut Bacteria,” podcast interview on High Intensity Health (April 21, 2015).
 Robynne Chutkan, The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out (New York: Avery, 2015).
 Yvette Brazier, “One course of antibiotics disrupts gut microbiome for a year,” MNT (November 10, 2015).