Last Wednesday, we looked at the world’s most amazing defense system and how we as a culture are systematically tearing it down.
It’s not the missiles, jets, or ships protecting us, it’s the bacteria in our bodies that literally keep us alive. The system that fights disease and keeps us healthy is a trillion-man army of cells called the “microbiome,” and it lives inside your intestines.
That cold you’ve been fighting…you think it’s all in your head? Guess again. The battle started in your intestines as virus cells invaded your body and the microbiome rose up to isolate it and destroy it.
Researchers are just starting to tap into the wonders of the microbiome.
The Human Genome Was A Start To Our Understanding
You may have read about the Human Genome Project, where scientists at the National Institutes of Health began an effort to understand the 3 billion parts of one strand of human DNA. They were looking for the root causes of disease, and they really felt, based on decades of genetics research, that this was the Holy Grail of disease management.
However, their research concluded a few years ago that only a small fraction of the diseases we face as humans are encoded into our DNA. The remainder can be traced to non-genetic elements: our environment, our eating habits, our behaviors, and so forth. The surprising thing they found was that more of our health is tied to the health of our microbiome than could be directly linked to the structure of our DNA. Even the structure of our DNA is linked directly to what microbes are present in our microbiome.
Dr. Joseph Mercola provides a compelling argument about the importance of the microbiome to our overall health and wellness, not just digestion. In it, he lists several specific health benefits the microbiome provides, including absorption of nutrients from our food, elimination of toxic materials, and defense against viruses. He also lists several health conditions that have been linked directly to weakness in the microbiome, including:
- Crohn’s Disease
- Food Allergies
- Alzheimer’s Disease and other brain/cognitive disabilities
- Mental Health Disorders
If any of these health issues are present in your family’s health history, I encourage you to read the article in detail, as well as others he has written specific to each disease.
The One Thing You Should Do Today To Strengthen Your Gut Flora
There are several things we can do to protect and reinforce the microbiome inside our bodies from day to day. Again, Dr. Mercola’s article shares a few things you should do, including getting fresh air, working in a garden, and washing your dishes by hand; and a few things you should avoid, like processed foods, herbicides, and antibiotics.
For our purposes today, I want to focus on one thing you should do to change the culture in your gut immediately. I don’t mean attending positive-thinking seminars, although there might be some health benefits to positive thinking. I mean changing the culture of bacteria in your gut (you know, like yeast is a culture, not your office culture).
To enjoy the benefits of a health gut flora, we need to seed the gut with healthy bacteria. Last week, I suggested that taking a daily probiotic supplement is a good start. A better choice is to create a healthy environment for the microbiome by increasing your intake of soluble and insoluble fiber from real food.
When I talk about fiber, the first thing most people think of is old people eating prunes and bran flakes before they go to the restroom. There is some truth to the notion that you need adequate fiber to ensure a comfortable trip to the restroom, but that’s only one small aspect of our need for dietary fiber.
Most Americans get dangerously inadequate dietary fiber, or they get enough of one type and not enough of the other. The USDA guideline is 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories consumed each day. There are cultures around the world (we might stupidly call them “primitive”) that get double that on average. They also have none of the diseases that kill or distress most Americans. If you consume 2,000 calories a day (which is almost laughable for many of us), you should be getting 28 grams of fiber every day. Most of us aren’t anywhere near that amount. The frustrating thing about that is that so many foods contain at least a little fiber. It doesn’t take much to get enough fiber into your diet, but most of us just don’t.
Soluble Vs. Insoluble: Which One Do You Need?
I’ve done other articles on this, but to give you a quick overview, soluble fiber dissolves in water, while insoluble fiber doesn’t. Each has its own unique set of benefits to your body. Insoluble fibers help keep things moving freely in the restroom. The best sources of insoluble fibers include dark leafy green veggies, whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds all contain some insoluble fiber.
Soluble fiber blends with the in your gut to create a gel-like substance. This gel helps slow down your digestion, making you feel fuller longer, which is one way soluble fiber can help you manage your weight. It also has the amazing ability to basically scrape cholesterol of the walls of your blood vessels, freeing up your blood flow and reducing your risk of heart disease. The other thing soluble fiber does so well is it manages the growth of bad bacteria in your gut, allowing the healthy bacteria in your gut to reproduce.
Where can you find soluble fiber?
Like I mentioned before, there are literally hundreds of foods that contain some amount of fiber, but here are a couple you can add to your shopping list tonight and start seeing a difference in your health over the next few months (courtesy of todaysdietician.com):
1. Beans: Beans are soluble fiber superstars. One cup of black beans has 4.8 g of soluble fiber, while Navy beans have 4.4 g and light-red kidney beans have 4 g. All beans are good choices, though.
2. Oat cereals: Oats are high in soluble fiber, making oat cereals a better choice than bran for this particular dietary component. A bowl of oatmeal made from 3/4 cup of dry oats contains 3 g of soluble fiber. A serving of cooked oat bran cereal (3/4 cup) has 2.2 g, and 1 cup of oat flakes has around 1.5 g.
3. Brussels sprouts: Vegetables are good sources of soluble fiber, with Brussels sprouts topping the list with 2 g per 1/2 cup. The flesh of sweet potatoes is next with 1.8 g followed by asparagus with 1.7 g. Brussels sprouts tossed with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasted for 30 to 45 minutes in a 400-degree oven have a sweet, rich flavor that can win over skeptics.
4. Oranges: Fruits are a tasty way to get soluble fiber, and oranges are the top pick, with 1.8 g of soluble fiber in one small orange. Eating four apricots with the skin provides 1.8 g as well. At this time of year, apples and pears are other grab-and-go fiber-rich favorites.’
5. Flaxseeds: While 1 T of peanut butter has 0.3 g of soluble fiber, flaxseeds have an impressive 1.1 g per tablespoon. Patients and clients can sprinkle ground flaxseeds on hot or cold cereal, for example.
Easy to Incorporate
“An easy way to boost soluble fiber intake is to frequently eat oats for breakfast and to include legumes in your diet at least a few times a week,” Palmer suggests.
“Your patients and clients don’t need to count grams of fiber if they lead with fruits and veggies,” says Susan E. Adams, MS, RD, LDN, an assistant professor in the nutrition program at LaSalle University of Philadelphia. “If they follow MyPlate and fill half of their plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal, they will be well on their way to getting enough. It really adds up!”
— Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN, is a freelance nutrition writer and community educator living outside Philadelphia.
Table 1: Types of Soluble Fiber
|Beta-glucan||Grains (oats, rye, barley)|
|Pectin (sugar acids)||Fruits, vegetables, legumes, sugar beets|
|Natural gums||Seeds (guar and locust bean), trees (gum acacia), seaweed (carrageenan), microbes (xanthan gum)|
|Inulin||Chicory, onions, wheat, Jerusalem artichokes; increasingly added to processed foods|
— Source: Tungland BC, Meyer D. Nondigestible oligo- and polysaccharides (dietary fiber): their physiology and role in human health and food. Comp Rev Food Sci Food Safety. 2002;3:90-109.
Let’s Do This One Thing
If you get noting else from this article, I urge you to review this short list and add more of these kinds of foods to your daily menu planning. Of course, a fresh salad with spinach or Romaine lettuce, tomato, cucumber, celery, and maybe a few slivered almonds is a simple way to add superpower to any meal.
We live in a society that doesn’t understand the importance of their intestinal microbiomes to their health, so we are surrounded with unhealthy food choices, many of which are highly addictive. You can take control of this one simple part of your life and see dramatic improvements in your health. I’ve seen patients shed chronic illnesses like a dirty shirt because they made a decision to take control of the food they put in their mouths, consciously choosing fiber-rich whole foods. We’ve just got to give our gut flora a chance to do what it was created to do – anchor our immune defenses.
By the way, if you’ve been through this process and have seen some exciting results from it, I hope you’ll take a few seconds to share your experience in the comments on Facebook. Sharing your success story grows your faith and helps others overcome their concerns and take action in their own lives.
I hope you’ll join me tomorrow for another “Think Right Thursday.” I can’t wait to share it with you.
“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas