At any given time, there are roughly 40 trillion bacteria in your body, many of which are in your digestive system. Studies have shown that the more bacteria you have and the more diverse this bacteria is, the easier time your body has digesting your food. This can also lead to a smaller chance of contracting diseases, particularly heart disease and diabetes. How can we cultivate our microbiomes to help our health? Let’s look at some case studies to see what we find.
Studies have shown that most people have some level of lactose intolerance. While some people have unbearable pain, others may only have minor indigestion, yet the symptoms all come from the same place: your gut. When babies are born, they have a significant amount of the enzyme lactase, which allows them to break down lactose-based products. This is important, as babies need to drink their mother’s milk. Over time, those babies turn into adults whose bodies contain much less lactase. This is why many people develop a lactose intolerance later in life — the amount of lactase decreases as it is cultivated less.
How can we fix this? One study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science gave subjects the prebiotic galactooligosaccharide (GOS) for 35 days. They found that these subjects were able to better digest dairy than the subjects who received placebos. This is revolutionary and shows that perhaps taking prebiotics can help maintain a population of positive bacteria. There are additional studies in scientific literature showing specific probiotics can significantly reduce or eliminate lactose intolerance.
The Hadza Tribe
The Hadza are a group of hunter-gatherers from Tanzania. These people have a much more diverse set of microbes than present in the Western guts. One surprising finding has been that their microbiomes fluctuate with seasons. For example, during the Hadza’s dry season, they primarily eat meat, just as most Westerners do. Their microbiome is much less diverse during this period, as many of their bacteria die. Then, during the wet season, the Hadza eat honey and berries, which provides their bodies with more fiber. This fiber helps more bacteria grow, allowing for better ease when digesting.
This is a fascinating observation that points to the plasticity of the gut microbiome. By changing our diet and lifestyle, we can alter the microbiome.
How Can I Help My Microbiomes?
There are many ways to impact our bodies significantly, and these are just a few:
- Eat more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and beans. These foods are high in fiber, which our bodies cannot digest. However, the bacteria in our intestines can digest it, which allows them to grow.
- Eat a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians have been shown to have more positive bacteria in their system, as well as a smaller amount of E. Coli. While scientists do not know the exact reason for this, many hypothesize that it is due to a lack of meat and an increase in fiber.
- Breastfeed for at least six months. Breastfeeding promotes the production of lactase, so breastfeeding for six months can start your child off with a more substantial amount of the enzyme. Their chances of severe lactose intolerance then decrease.
- Let yourself get dirty. Your immune system benefits from exposure to bacteria, and dirt contains trillions of bacteria. You don’t need to skip a shower or play in mud to reap the benefits — doing some simple gardening can provide enough access to bacteria. Furthermore, don’t be a germaphobe. The more you kill off bacteria before your immune system detects it, the more likely you are to get sick and stay sick longer.
Microbiomes are some of the most complex systems in our bodies. They help to regulate many processes and make up for those we lack. Science has only begun to measure the impacts of positively promoting bacteria in our bodies, and there will likely be significant revelations revealed in the future.