By Ryan Parsons
Human beings are more than 99% genetically identical. But the bacteria called microbiota that reside in our digestive tract are incredibly diverse and highly individual from one person to the next.
To keep things in perspective, there are thirty trillion human cells in your body and forty trillion microbiota cells. This community of microorganisms is shaped by what we eat and in return shapes our development and health. Ideally, these microorganisms work symbiotically with our body to fend off disease, assist our immune system, and balance our metabolism.
Like any organism, your microbiome needs balance, too. Bad lifestyle habits can harm the robustness of your bacteria community and/or lead to an overload of “bad” bacteria. An imbalance in the microbiome contributes to the development of many chronic diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, cancer, and autism.
So here are five simple ways to increase the variety and amount of microbiota in your digestive tract.
1. Eat More Plants and Fiber
It’s easy to find differing opinions on diet, but no one will argue against eating more vegetables — especially leafy greens. Fiber-rich foods transform gut bacteria and bolster the integrity of your intestinal lining helping nutrients get in and keeping the bad stuff out. Fiber rich foods, also referred to as prebiotics will help sustain a more varied colony of bacteria, which is paramount to good health. From digestion to building the body's immune system, we need a healthy gut colony to survive.
What You Can Do: Aim for thirty-plus grams of fiber per day. And get creative so you don’t get bored — experiment with foods like lentils, black beans, Brussels sprouts, green peas, broccoli, and chia seeds.
2. Add a Probiotic Supplement
I recommend switching between a few reputable brands to increase your chance of added diversity in your bacterial community. In addition, everyone’s microbiome is unique and will benefit from different strains of bacteria. Generally, the more strains the better, and you may even feel differently when you’re consuming the supplement that’s right for you, i.e. your digestive system may be generally less disgruntled.
What You Can Do: When buying probiotics, the important factor is how many of the bacteria are still alive by the time you consume them. Look for products with expiration dates and those that are stored cold. There’s no guarantee, but this should increase your odds of purchasing a useful supplement.
3. Try Fermented Foods
Fermented foods have been around for 8,000 years and represent the best source of dietary probiotics to feed your gut. These old-school foods provide a diverse combination of bacteria, not just one or two strains. One of the easiest, most common fermented products is yogurt. Other examples are kefir, kimchee, sauerkraut, pickles, and kombucha tea.
What You Can Do: Make eating yogurt a regular habit, just don’t eat too much of it and make sure you buy unsweetened yogurt to avoid unnecessary sugars.
5. Get Consistent Sleep
The quality of our sleep also impacts the health of our microbiome. A 2014 study published in the journal PLOS ONE “demonstrated that circadian disorganization can impact intestinal microbiota which may have implications for inflammatory diseases.” Translation: a good night sleep is important for not just you, but also your tribe of intestinal hitchhikers.
What You Can Do: We can help balance our guts by practicing good sleep hygiene like turning electronics off thirty to sixty minutes before bed and making sure our bedroom is as dark as possible. Also, get as close to eight hours of sleep a night as you can.
Scientists from the University College Cork in Ireland studied the microbiomes of forty professional rugby players. The results showed the rugby players had microbiomes that were far more diverse than the normal people the researchers examined.
In a May 2013 control study published in the journal PLOS ONE, forty rats were assigned to one of four experimental groups: two with free access to exercise and two with no access to exercise. A significant increase in the number of the bacteria Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and B. coccoides–E. rectale group was found in the microbiota of the rats with access to exercise.
In other studies, as well, it appears that exercise induces changes in the gut microbiota that are different than those produced by diet.
What You Can Do: Get up, step away from your computer or phone and get moving. If you’re short on time do 50 air squats. Go for a run, swing some kettlebells. You don’t need an elite training program to get the benefits of exercise.
Grow Your Gut to Grow Health and Performance
We spend billions of dollars a year on anti-inflammatory drugs, antacids, and antidepressants to treat conditions that are influenced by the bugs that live in our gut. Given the connection between the quality of our gut microbiota and health, special attention needs to be given to how lifestyle and dietary choice impact this symbiotic relationship.
The good news is change begins with your next meal. By incorporating these changes into your lifestyle over the next month, you will begin to strengthen your microbiota and improve your health.
Dr. Ryan Parsons is a veteran MMA coach, manager and co-author of The Four Pack Revolution (Rodale, December 2017). He received his doctorate in Chiropractic Medicine from the Los Angeles College of Chiropractic and is the inventor of Radius Wraps, the first combat sport product to undergo a peer-reviewed university clinical trial. He is the author of the Ultimate Weight Cut Guide for Combat Sports Athletes. Ryan has cut weight with elite athletes on five continents in all kinds of places — saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, hotel rooms, city parks, the beach, and even at an arena under a camera crew’s lights in Brazil.