Dinner for 100 Trillion: Fueling Your Internal Army
by Shaina Salin
Editorial Coordinator, Alignment Matrix
Once upon an evolutionary time, a diverse legion of colonists discovered a vast spread of fertile, uncultivated land. Being quite the opportunistic bunch, they quickly sought to establish residency, but needless to say the process of dividing land into properties was not without competition. Eventually, those who acquired their own acreage prospered in the region’s varied climates. They formed allied communities that cultivated various niches of land, providing nourishment for them while contributing to the balance of the ecosystem and the community at large. Travelers were always welcome, but rogue behavior would not be tolerated in this harmonious environment. The kingdom thrived and all of its citizens evolved happily ever after…
One might be surprised to learn that this fairy tale takes place inside the mystical realm of the human Large Intestine, which up until birth, is virgin territory to the 100 trillion microbial colonists that will come to populate it. These bacteria comprise a flexible, genetic landscape called a microbiome—a collective, prokaryotic entity that detects changes in the environment, adapts to them, and defends against pathogenic intruders—keeping the kingdom (i.e. you) vital and healthy. Many factors affect how our intestinal ecosystems develop, including how were born (vaginally or by C-section), whether we were breast fed or formula fed, and our exposure to environmental toxins—but whether or not our gut flora lives “happily ever after” is largely influenced by our lifestyle choices. Getting to know your gut and learning how to optimally fuel (and not kill off) your internal infantry (all 100 trillion cells) are key strategies to boost your long-term health.
Research on the human gut microbiome is still in its nascent stage, but so far it has shown that the microbial landscape plays a significant role in human health. Studies have indicated that people with greater gut flora diversity also tend to have a lowered risk of developing metabolic and immune disorders. In an article for Time, science writer Veronique Greenwood discusses the implications of two studies that were recently published in the scientific journal, Nature—the first correlated low rates of microbial diversity in the gut with increased symptoms of metabolic syndrome, and the second found that implementing a diet protocol improved both the subjects’ gut diversity rates and their symptoms of metabolic disease. Greenwood suggests, “perhaps a low-diversity microbiome, though linked to worse metabolic health, is amenable to dietary intervention,” implying that if we know how to properly nourish our gut flora, we could effectively counteract and prevent diseases like type 2 diabetes that plague our society.
So what do you feed an army of trillions? Michael Pollan explores this inquiry in a recent article for the New York Times, citing how people in non-Western societies typically have more diverse microbiota than we sick, super-sizing Westerners. Pollan suggests that the Western diet has something to do with our relatively low rates of bacterial variety, as we mainly subsist on processed foods that have no nutritional value for our microbes or for us. On the other hand, cultures outside the church of Ronald McDonald tend to maintain a diet that our species evolved on—mainly plants, nuts, seeds and meat. These also happen to be foods that provide sustainable energy for our gut bacteria. In addition, fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut introduce new microbes into the gut that aid in digestion and reinforce your microbiome. If you only eat foods with minimal nutrient value, you slowly starve and weaken your army—because by the time that muffin gets to the microbial table, all that’s left to feast on is a pile of crumbs. As Pollan eloquently states, “the less a food is processed, the more of it that gets safely through…into the eager clutches of the microbiota.”
While knowing how to nourish your microbiome is essential, it is just as important to know how to avoid killing it off. One of the deadliest threats to the human microbiome is the antibiotic, which translates to “prevent-life.” Though antibiotics may be necessary in emergency situations, our Rx-driven-culture tends to hand out these microbial “weapons of mass destruction” like candy. In his article, Pollan states that the average American child receives anywhere from 10-20 rounds of antibiotics before age 18, a dismal statistic in terms of gut flora health, not to mention the loads of antibiotics being pumped into cows, pigs, and chickens, which make their way into our guts when we buy conventional meat, eggs, and dairy. The less we expose ourselves to life-preventers by opting out of unnecessary medications and purchasing antibiotic-free food, the stronger our microbiota—and by extension our immune systems—will be.
While the science is still unfolding, it is evident that we have a great deal of influence on our health through the lifestyle choices that we make. By eating foods that promote vitality and by avoiding unnecessary exposure to antibiotics, you can defend your gut from the perils of modern society so that it can more effectively protect you.