First off, I want to wish you a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s as we wind up 2017. It’s very likely that if you’re visiting this site, in some way you’ve positively impacted my life this year. I wanted to pay it back by sharing some of the things that I’ve learned over the last year about the importance of maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.
The holidays are a time of year ripe with all the things that can send our gut microbiota out of whack, including:
- sleep disruption
- a new or unfamiliar environment
- stress (Christmas with the inlaws, anyone?)
- unfamiliar foods
I’m writing this from my family home in Canada, 1675 miles (2800 km) from where I normally live in Southern California, where it’s currently 42° F (+6° Celsius) outside. In McBride BC, it’s 5°F (-13° C). I’m away from my kefir supply, my fermented vegetables, the fresh organic greens from our backyard, and all the things I lean on in times of stress. What’s more, over the next couple of weeks I’ll be doing lots of driving, visiting and catching up with family and friends, and experiencing all those microbiome-shifting factors in spades.
I woke up this morning with the first question on my mind being, How can I make it through the holidays without feeling like a wreck by the end of it?
One of the biggest things I want to focus on this year is protecting my gut flora from the onslaught of stressors I’ve listed above. Gut bacteria produce a wealth of neurotransmitters, including GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, all of which have major impacts on our mood, response to stress, and ability to keep our cool when the US administration comes up one more time at the dinner table. As someone who has fought depression most of my life, this is probably one of the most important factors to me – keeping not only the digestive function but also the psychological function of my gut in good shape throughout the next couple of weeks.
I wanted to share the top 5 (oops, 8!) strategies that I’m taking to stay in good shape, in case there’s something in there that helps you do the same.
1) Get at least a daily dose of food-based pre- and probiotics.
Prebiotics selectively stimulate growth and/or activity of the beneficial bacteria and facilitate their establishment in the heavily colonized gut. Probiotics are bacteria that can trigger changes in the gut microbiota. Combining them creates a synbiotic (synergy + biotic), in which the prebiotic provides a selective food source for the probiotic bacteria, enhancing their growth and establishment.
You can make a symbiotic at home with familiar ingredients; some good combinations include:
- Yogurt or kefir and honey, seeds, oats, and/or berries, bananas
- Beans (legumes) and pickles
- Yogurt, sour cream, or kefir with garlic, e.g. tzatsiki
- Feta cheese and onions, e.g. a Greek salad
- Greens sautéed with garlic and sour cream, yogurt, or kefir cheese
- Fermented pickled garlic and vegetables
Fortunately, my family and friends are big on all of these foods. Although they may not always be from ideal sources, I can do my best to focus on home-made ingredients and getting organic products whenever possible.
2) Take a commercial probiotic that I know works for me.
I’m using BIOHM’s daily probiotic and prebiotic formulas that have been shown help to combat Candida albicans overgrowth (which I find happens reliably when I started consuming too many bread and sugar products, especially in combination with alcohol. Yay Christmas!). They also are the only commercially available product specifically formulated to help rebalance the gut fungal community. I’m continuing to learn more and more about how the fungi in our digestive tracts help to maintain a scaffold that supports and protects good gut bacteria.
3) Get some exercise every day.
That doesn’t mean I’m heading to the gym, just a walk down the road, some push-ups in the morning, and 15 to 20 minutes of yoga when I get up. Even a small amount makes a big difference in my mood, which can have positive feedback effects on my gut microbiota, which in turn positively affects my mood. Win!
4) Do my best to get enough sleep.
Sleep replenishes our brains, allowing neurogenesis (the building and rebuilding of neural networks) to occur – but it is also accompanied by a profound shift in the activity of the gut biota. Gut microbiota can in return profoundly influence our sleep patterns by influencing uptake and metabolism of melatonin, affecting our circadian rhythms, and regulating our production and metabolism of cortisol. I’ll be doing my best to pace myself — maybe pick one night to stay up late playing board games or hanging out with my sisters talking, reminiscing and catching up. Then follow it up with an extra-long morning in bed, or an early night the next day, or even a good nap in the afternoon. (Read more in this Huffington Post article.)
5) Practice meditation and mindfulness at any opportunity I get.
While I’ve chosen vipassana meditation as my practice, any opportunity to sit down, take a few deep breaths, and calmly assess how I’m feeling – physically, emotionally, mentally – benefits the gut micro biome by reducing cortisol and helping to manage serotonin and dopamine. When I do this, I’m asking myself things like, Do I need to check out for a 15-minute nap? Drink a glass of water? Where in my body is there tension or frustration? Where do I feel light or celebratory? I know from past experience that just noticing the physical manifestations of emotions, without trying to change them, and without feeling guilt or frustration with myself for feeling sad, tired, angry, or whiny, goes a long way in keeping me psychologically balanced through busy, festive times like this.
6) Eat slower.
This means really taking the time to savour the taste, texture, and smells of foods. Holidays mean that we’re surrounded by delicious things! I intend to take the time to enjoy them, one bite at a time. Incidentally, this will also help reduce the amount of overeating that goes on, as well as prime my brain for reaching for the good stuffs and avoid the excessively sweet things I’d rather avoid.
7) Drink enough water.
This seems like a no-brainer. Skip the beer, grab a glass of water. Staying hydrated impacts our solute balances in the gut and both uptake and excretion of excess salts, metabolism, and circulation.
8) Really focus on limiting the sugar and alcohol intake.
A 2016 study showed that a short-duration binge on junk food can have as much impact on the gut microbiota as a regular diet on the stuff. While it’ll be impossible to completely avoid the magic bars and butter tarts that grace the table, keeping in mind that indulging just for a few days will have as big an effect as changing my whole diet the rest of the year will make me more mindful of what I’m munching on.
Okay, that’s it. I’m working on a little gut micro biome manual because overwhelmingly, the response from the SlowFood Microbiome Project study indicated that people wanted to know more – and also just wanted specific, focused, and practical strategies for improving their gut health. If you’re interested, shoot me a reply email. And if you’re just interested in talking gut (and soil!) biota, always feel free to drop me a line at any time. There are some interesting things in the works for 2018 and I’m making them with you in mind.
Happy holidays everyone. May your healthy gut flora continue to flourish in the new year. 🙂
P.S. Please feel free to share this with your friends and family (inlaws included!).