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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.

Last week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I discussed “The Mighty Microbes in Your Body,” a topic I find not just fascinating, but vital for our understanding of why we are experiencing skyrocketing rates of certain diseases which were practically nonexistent when the Word of Wisdom was first revealed:

Diseases such as hay fever and food allergies, which were not described prior to 1800 and which are not found in today’s developing societies, are now commonplace in the USA, the UK and in other industrialized countries. With as much as 40% of the US population suffering from allergic disorders, and another 2–8% facing autoimmune condition, modern medicine has thus far failed to contain the onslaught of non-infectious, immune-related pandemics. This onslaught has contributed to a rate of chronic illness in children that approaches 50% and may also be associated with a variety of cognitive disorders including autism and . . . schizophrenia. [1]

Today I plan to continue this discussion. I’ll start with an overview of why this topic is so important, especially for parents!

Brief Overview of the Microbiome and What Is at Stake

Just as this planet is full of microorganisms, so are our bodies. Only 10% of the cells and 1% of the genes in our bodies are human. The rest belong to the over 100 trillion microorganisms that live inside us. We may not like the thought of all these tiny creatures dwelling in us, but the fact is, we couldn’t live without them! Think of them as the “worker bees” that do much of the work required to keep our bodies functioning. For example, they play an important role in—

  • Digesting food, extracting energy, and absorbing nutrients
  • Creating and coordinating our body’s immune system
  • Protecting us against pathogens and clearing toxins from our bodies
  • Synthesizing chemicals that play essential roles throughout our bodies
  • Developing the central nervous systems and stress responses
  • Turning our humans genes on and off [2]

Our part of the symbiotic relationship with these microorganisms is providing room and board. This should be simple to do: they’ve already moved in and all they need for food is the fiber in the plant foods we are unable to digest and use anyway! But unfortunately a combination of factors in modern society is seriously threatening the number, diversity, and type of the microbiota in our bodies. These threats include:

1. Far less exposure to a diversity of microorganisms

  • More mothers going through pregnancy with a non-optimal microbiome
  • Increased use of Caesarean section (one in three births in the U.S.)
  • Trends away from breastfeeding and breastfeeding for an extended period
  • Moving from farms to cities and spending less time outside and in the dirt
  • Smaller families and households
  • Hyper-sanitization of human spaces, food, and water

2. Things we do that directly harm the microorganisms in our body

  • Constant vigilance in human hygiene
  • Use of strong chemicals to clean our bodies
  • Use of medications and other pharmaceuticals
  • Widespread use of antibiotics

3. Ways we fail to nourish the microorganisms in our body

  • Breeding of plants to have less fiber
  • Consuming only a part of whole plant foods
  • Eating refined plant foods with little or no fiber
  • Increasing consumption of animal foods, which have no fiber

As the number, diversity, and type of our microbiota diminishes, these worker bees are not able to effectively fulfill their critical roles. The scientific research is beginning to draw a clear connection between the degradation of our microbiome and the rising rates of diseases that appear to be a direct result, including—

  • Food allergies and food intolerances
  • Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis
  • Gastrointestinal conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, and constipation
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Diminished cognitive function and negative behavior patterns, especially related to social interaction and stress management [3]

Even worse, the very treatments we are using to combat these diseases (like reducing fiber and taking antibiotics) may relieve symptoms, but they often make the underlying condition worse, leading to a vicious cycle that may never lead to complete recovery and wellness.

These are not just diseases experienced by older people in our society! The first few years of life are perhaps the most important for the development of a child’s microbiome. The sad fact is that a frighteningly large number of our children are beginning to experience these serious diseases as a consequence of the widespread threats to their burgeoning microbiomes. [1] Even children who experience a relatively healthy childhood are often being set-up for serious disease as adults due to these threats. [2]

This is the bad news.

Fortunately (and this is where the research gets very exciting!), there is lots of good news as well. The good news is that the solutions to this problem are relatively simple, inexpensive, and low tech. But for that very reason, educating us about this solution is not in the financial interest of the corporations and other large institutions who have the money to do so. Therefore, it is critical that we take the initiative to educate ourselves.

Although the multi-dimensional work microbes do in our bodies is breathtakingly complex, and much of it is unknown, what we need to do to take care of them is much better understood, simple, and doable. And the Lord has already told us how!

The Word of Wisdom and Our Microbiome

Of all the factors related to the health of our microbiome, diet is one of the most important and non-controversial. Our healthy gut microbiota is completely dependent for their survival on the quality of carbohydrates we choose to put into our mouths. It should come as no surprise that the type of diet the Lord ordained for us is the same diet that will protect and nourish the microbes in our bodies and the bodies of our family members, including our children.

In the Word of Wisdom, the Lord ordained “wholesome” (think “whole”) plant foods for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10) and grains to serve as “the staff of life” (D&C 89:14). Animal foods (which would otherwise displace these high fiber plant foods) are to be used “sparingly” and only in times of need, such as winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger (D&C 89:12–15).

Wholesome plant foods are the only source of high fiber complex carbohydrates. They are not found in animal foods, and they are processed out of highly refined plant foods. We’ve long known that not all of the nutrients in carbohydrates are digestible by our human digestive system. A good percent of complex carbohydrates is dietary fiber that passes through the small and large intestine without being broken down for human use. While this fiber does not directly nourish our bodies with either needed energy or vital nutrients, it is vital to our well-being nonetheless. It is now clear that this part of our food is not meant to feed us; it is meant to feed our microbiome. [2]

Wholesome plant foods are much more than the primary source of nutrients and energy for human beings; they are the only source of nutrients and energy for the vast majority of the healthy microbes we must feed. Processed foods and animal foods (which now comprise over 90% of the average diet for people living in developed countries) do not contain the dietary fiber needed to properly nourish the worker bees in our bodies.

Peoples living in environments that better resemble those of our own ancestors many generations ago consume a relatively whole food, plant-based diet with an estimated 150 grams of fiber per day. In contrast, the average American consumes a paltry 16 grams a day, [4] about one-tenth of the fiber that our distant ancestors consumed! Even the USDA guidelines (which do not even reflect what we have learned about the importance of the microbiome over the past decade) recommend most adults consume at least 25–38 grams a day. [5]

The recommended USDA intake for children 1–3 years of age is a mere 19 grams a day, when there is evidence that the children of our distant ancestors were eating up to ten times that amount! [6] Children in the U.S. today are consuming just 11–12 grams a day. No wonder up to one-third of our children are experiencing constipation! [7]

The Microbiome and Gut Integrity

One important consequence of a diminished microbiome is the loss of integrity in the all-important barrier between our gut and the rest of our human bodies. Our microbiome plays a central role in our immune system, which includes establishing and maintaining the gut integrity critical for protecting our bodies from pathogens, food particles, and large molecules that should not be allowed to pass from the gut into our bloodstream and body tissues. They do this in many ways, including building, maintaining, and patrolling the mucous layer which fully coats the intestinal lining of our entire gut (an area that covers some 2,000 square feet!). [2]

In face of starvation, microbes will do all they can to survive. Just as we humans have a “back-up” source of nutrition in the form of animal flesh, the microbiome has a back-up form of nutrition: us! Yes, these tiny microorganisms begin to eat us if we do not give them enough food. In particular, they begin to feast on the important mucous lining of our digestive system. Microbes munching on our mucous lining is actually a normal condition, but abnormal feasting behavior leads to our mucous lining becoming so thin and porous it is not able to perform the vital function of maintaining the integrity of our gut lining. [8]

Starving these microbes by failing to consume enough dietary fiber, or harming them when using medications or eating a diet high in animal fat and protein, has other results that are equally consequential to gut integrity. The most beneficial microbes die out or do not flourish, the more harmful ones proliferate, and the work that ought to be done by our microbiome is not done effectively. Inflammation, infections, and toxins in our gut lining are a result. Without strong gut integrity, we develop a “leaky gut,” and experience increased exposure to microbes and particles of digesting foods that can cross over the gut barrier into the blood stream and human tissue. [2] This undesirable permeability in our gut is—

a precondition for developing autoimmune disease, since it’s the increase in intestinal permeability—the opening of the door from our gut into our body—that allows toxins to enter and then trigger an immune response. Leaky gut has also been implicated in food allergies, GI [gastrointestinal] distress, and a host of nonspecific complaints, including headaches, hair loss, fatigue, joint pain, rashes, hives, brain fog, memory loss, and increased susceptibility to infection. [9]

The incidence of allergies, autoimmune, and gastrointestinal diseases has skyrocketed during the past few decades as our diets have stopped being sufficient to provide our microbiome with healthy nourishment and our overuse of drugs and chemicals has led to their direct destruction. We are only just recently beginning to understand the widespread impact this destruction is having, not just on us as individuals, but on us as a species.

We humans are not meant to live in this world alone. When the Lord commanded us and all living creatures to multiple and replenish the earth, He designed us to live in harmony and mutual dependence on tiny creatures we will never see but that we must rely on for vital body functions. When He gave us the Word of Wisdom, it was not just for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10), but also for the constitution, nature, and use of the tiny creatures that dwell inside us. The good Lord made these tiny creatures our protectors, but we are their stewards. What can we do to be better stewards of them?

The Good News

While we can’t change the past, we can change the present and the future! Fortunately for us, our microbiome has an important Christ-like characteristic: it is forgiving. Like the gospel, there is plenty of good news! Most importantly, our microbiota is very responsive to dietary changes, so when we make good food choices, we can dramatically improve the quality of our microbiome. In fact the microbiota is so responsive, these changes can begin to occur even less than 24 hours after we change our diets!

We know the types of foods that best nourish a healthy microbiome. They are the same foods that nourish us: whole, natural, unrefined plant foods in the form of whole fruits, whole vegetables, whole grains, and whole legumes. Nothing can substitute for these real foods, complete with all their intact fibers (what used to be called “roughage”). There really are no shortcuts, no magic pills, no alternate technologies that will do the trick. While probiotics (isolated microbes we can swallow as a pill) or isolated fiber (like bran used as a supplement) can play a small role in difficult situations, they cannot take the place of what the Lord has designed for our on going health and well-being. As two leading researchers tell us—

There is no microbiota crash diet, because although microbiota responds quickly to dietary change, it is the long-term dietary patterns that translate into the lifelong positive health effects provided by the microbiota. [10]

In previous articles, I’ve described how following the Lord’s counsel in the Word of Wisdom can prevent epidemics of chronic illness such as heart disease, diabetes, strokes, cancer, kidney disease, and osteoporosis. Now, with the added understanding of how the Lord’s counsel also protects our microbiome, we can better understand how heeding this counsel can protect us, and our children, from many other chronic (and potentially life-long) diseases.

I hope this added information about the microbiome will fill us hope and gratitude for the Lord’s counsel and give us courage to embrace the Word of Wisdom way. I hope this remarkable knowledge will help us decide we care more about our health than we do our dietary habits, our social traditions, and our fear of change. If not for ourselves, I hope we can do this for our families! For our children!

In upcoming articles I will continue to explore more of this topic, but you don’t need to wait to learn more now. Here are some resources I highly recommend, especially for all parents.

Feeding Your Microbiome a Healthy Word of Wisdom Diet

Because a healthy microbiome plays such an important role in digestion, especially in digesting dietary fiber, if we have not been consuming a high fiber diet, it can take some time for our bodies to adjust to increased fiber. Here are some tips for adjusting to a higher fiber diet.

For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, for yourself and for your microbiome, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom 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.”


[1] William Parker and Jeff Ollerton, “Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology Suggest Biome Reconstitution as a Necessary Approach Toward Dealing With Immune Disorders,” Evol Med Public Health (1): 89–103 (April 19, 2013).

[2] This and much of the information I present in this article are widely found in the scientific literature on the microbiome. Here are three scientific overviews: Aafke W. F. Janssen and Sander Kersten, “The Role of the Gut Microbiota in Metabolic Health,” The FASEB Journal 29(8): 3111-23 (April 28, 2015); Matthew J. Bull and Nigel T. Plummer, “The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease,” Integrative Medicine 13(6): 17–22 (December 2014); Kei E. Fujimura, et al., “Role of the Gut Microbiota in Defining Human Health,” Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 8(4): 435–454 (April 2010). Two popular summaries I highly recommend are: (1) Robynne Chutkan, The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out (New York: Avery, 2015) and (2) Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health (New York: Penguin, 2015).

[3] For the last bullet, see Timothy G. Dinana et al., “Collective Unconscious: How Gut Microbes Shape Human Behavior,” Journal of Psychiatric Research 63: 1–9 (April 2015).

[4] M. Katherine Hoy and Joseph D. Goldman, “Fiber Intake of the U.S. Population: What We Eat in America,” NHANES 2009-2010, U.S. Department of Agriculture (September 2014).

[5] USDA DRI Tables, “Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients,” (2002/2005).

[6] Interview with Jeff Leach, “Human Food Project Reveals Results of Gut Bacteria on A Paleo Diet,” High Intensity Health with Mike Mutzel (September 29, 2015).

[7] Manu R. Sood, “Constipation in Infants and Children: Evaluation,” (Apr 1, 2015).

[8] Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “How the Western Diet Has Derailed Our Evolution,” Nautilus (November 12, 2015).

[9] Chutkan, The Microbiome Solution, Chapter 5.

[10] Sonnenburg and Sonnenburg, The Good Gut, p. 217.