Taking care of our microbiome is the new health issue everyone seems to be talking about, and thank goodness for that! Our bodies are much more than a system of organs and blood vessels; we carry more bacteria cells in our body than anything else. It’s crucial that these cells are largely made of good bacteria versus bad bacteria to support our immunity, gut health, and overall state of well-being. Our immune and nervous systems are largely affected by how healthy our guts are, which is determined by how much good bacteria we have in our bodies. This means our mood is affected by our microbiome, not to mention how prone we are to everything from the common cold to being more susceptible to serious forms of disease due to weakened immunity or poor digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
Everything we do either supports our good bacteria cells or causes unhealthy bacteria cells to rise.
The Essence of Our Microbiome
One of the most important factors to caring for our bodies is to eat a diet that supports our good bacteria and doesn’t feed bad bacteria. What is bad bacteria, you ask? It’s a mix between harmful yeasts, fungi, viruses, parasites and other things that rob our health. These can contribute to everything from food allergies, sugar addictions (since yeast and parasites feed off sugar), weight gain, digestive problems, mood disorders, and even serious illnesses. These unhealthy bacteria levels get out of hand and grow when we eat foods with antibiotics that destroy our good bacteria cells, processed foods, eat old or molded foods, eat carcinogenic foods, come in contact with parasites that are often found in foreign countries or contaminated drinking water, eat certain types of fish coated with pesticides, consume factory farmed meat, when we swim or bathe in polluted waters, or even when we come in contact with infested pets.
Living in unhealthy conditions can also contribute to an imbalance of good and bad bacteria. Common causes include mold exposure or overexposure to chemical toxins that cause our good bacteria cells to die and unhealthy bacteria to take over. Bad bacteria can also take over our guts when we’re exposed to pharmaceutical drugs that weaken our immune systems or alter our bodies’ natural hormones, such as chemical-based birth control pills, regular prescription drugs, or a regular diet of processed foods. Our gut health can also suffer when we’re consistently stressed, which weakens immunity allowing good bacteria to take over more easily. The digestive health concern known as leaky gut syndrome can also cause bad bacteria to fester since it allows harmful invaders into the bloodstream.
As you can see, we’re a living bacteria war, if you will. This concept, our bacterial makeup, is referred to as our microbiome.
Don’t go panicking just yet though; there are some easy things you can do to support your microbiome to prevent illness, disease, and simple, yet pesky health issues. One of the most beneficial things you do to support your microbiome is eat more natural plant-based foods. Fruits and vegetables, along with leafy greens, nuts and seeds all greatly support one’s microbiome. Depending on your state of digestive health and past health issues, beans, legumes, and some whole grains may also help, though those with especially damaged digestive systems may need to watch consumption for awhile.
Here’s why plant-based foods do the body good on all counts:
One reason fiber is so good for us isn’t just because it keeps our digestive systems on tract; it’s because of the way fiber actually reacts with bacteria in the colon. Fiber feeds good bacteria cells, which is one reason it can cause a bit of gurgling when you increase your fiber intake abruptly. Though it might be uncomfortable if you eat a lot of fiber at one time, it’s actually because your good bacteria levels are being fed. Fiber also allows your body to work as it’s supposed to and remove excess wastes (bad bacteria) via the colon to excrete it the way nature intended. Fiber from fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens are all some of the easiest to digest and healthiest for you. Other good sources are grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Fiber is also one of the keys to staying healthy for life, which makes plant-based eating a no-brainer on all counts for your health. Many foods such as sauerkraut, miso, raw cacao and 100 percent dark chocolate or cacao powder, kimchi, and coconut water kefir actually contain natural probiotics (good bacteria cells) all own their own due to the fermentation required to make these foods.
2. You Are What You Eat
If our bodies are made of mostly bacteria (over 100 trillion cells to be exact), then what we eat is directly what we become one way or another. Meat and other animal-based foods affect our bacteria cells just like plant-based foods do, except many animal-based options trigger bad bacteria to grow versus good bacteria. Researchers have found that due to the high amounts of unhealthy fats in animal-based foods, forms of unhealthy bacteria that resist the digestion of bile (needed to breakdown fat) fostered and grew, which also triggered obesity and several forms of disease as a result. On the other hand, those that ate a plant-based diet showed no increase in bad bacteria levels, while levels of good bacteria actually increased, though the specific strains that grew were fairly low overall.
What this means is that a plant-based diet has all the right components that support the digestion of fats, protein, and carbohydrates in our bodies to care for our good bacteria cells, though it should be noted that each person’s own health history and current health needs also all affect how bacteria will respond to one’s diet. Aside from animals, it’s also important to consider processed foods, which are made of chemicals, artificial sweeteners linked to lowering good bacteria that can lead to weight gain, and other food “products” our bodies don’t recognize as usable fuel. Many processed foods also contain added sugars that feed bad bacteria, unlike the natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables that our bodies can use to feed good bacteria.
3. Meat is Full of Bacteria
Meat is naturally full of unhealthy bacteria, because it’s the remains of a former living animal. Research has also found that even lean meat causes a change in our microbiome that leads to clogging of the arteries and heart disease. Meat and other animal-based foods are also sources of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and other toxins that weaken our bodies and thus dampen the good bacteria cells found in our bodies.
4. Reduces Inflammation
Researchers have also found that one reason a plant-based diet supports our microbiome better is because of the way it can reduce inflammation in the colon, which animal foods only proliferate. For individuals with sensitive digestive systems and leaky gut syndrome, grains, beans and legumes may need to be avoided for a short time to reduce inflammation until a great level of healing is achieved. Plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, raw nuts and seeds, and fats like coconut, olives and avocados can all help promote a more alkaline body and reduce inflammation.
5. Improves Immunity
One of the greatest benefits of a plant-based diet is the way it supports our immune systems, largely found in our gut. Plant-based foods are full of vitamin C that powers and strengthens the immune system, along with vitamin A, also needed for optimal immunity and wellness. Even just adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to any existing diet is one of the best ways to improve immunity, though it’s also important to eliminate the sources of antibiotics in your diet that kill good bacteria cells needed for a healthy immune system too. These antibiotics can can come from medications, anti-bacterial soaps, and any animal-foods that are made from animals given antibiotics, which usually boils down to conventionally-raised (not organic) animal-based food products. Exercising, not smoking, and managing stress are also important for your immune system. Along with a healthy lifestyle, a plant-based diet will support your body to help you manage stress since it contains vitamins, minerals, and fiber that benefit your blood pressure, blood sugar, and hormones that all affect how your body responds to stress.
While there is still a great deal to learn about the concept of eating to improve our microbiome, it’s pretty obvious that a plant-based diet has many things going for it in terms of improving our good bacteria levels. The key takeaway? Eat more plants and unprocessed foods in place of animal-based and processed food options whenever you can, and better yet, choose organic so you’re not putting large amounts of pesticides, chemicals, and other unnatural ingredients in your body that don’t support your microbiome. When you make these simple changes, everyone wins — the planet, animals, and you, along with the trillions of bacteria cells you coexist with daily.
Check out a Green Monster’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition to learn more about improving your health with plant-based foods and to get started on becoming a healthier you in no time!
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