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Tips to Help You Get a Better Gut


When you think about getting a better gut, do crunches and core work come to mind? While I’m certainly all for exercise to help you achieve and maintain a healthy body weight and to keep your waist size in check (especially since excess abdominal fat is linked with an increased disease risk), it’s important to look beneath the surface and skin when thinking about the health of our gut.

At a recent nutrition conference in London, I had the pleasure of hearing from* and meeting two experts in gut health: Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine and his lovely wife Erica Sonnenburg, PhD, a senior research scientist (also at Stanford) who studies the role of diet on the human intestinal microbiota.

According to the Sonnenburgs, several factors including dietary changes, the over-use of antibiotics, and over-sterilization have wreaked havoc on our guts (literally) and have contributed to the loss of gut microbiota–trillions of organisms representing thousands of species to which our bodies play host. They argue that this, in turn, has made us more vulnerable to developing everything from food allergies to autism, cancer to depression. They’ve used their experiences both in the lab and in their home to create their new book, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health. In it they share their plan for health that focuses on nourishing our gut microbiota–something most of us think little (if at all) about when choosing the foods we eat and lifestyle we live.

I am excited to have had the opportunity to interview the Sonnenburgs about their work and book via email. Please see highlights of the interview below (including their tips to help you get your gut in tip-top shape):

What compelled you to do research on the gut microbiota?

We started working on the microbiota back in 2003 when there were very few people in the field and definitely no realization of how important our gut bacteria were to so many aspects of our health. We were drawn to the field because it seemed that there were so many interesting questions to address relating to human biology. What are these trillions of bacteria doing in the gut? How do they respond to changes in diet? Are they doing more than helping us digest food? What happens when they encounter a pathogenic bacteria? It wasn’t until the lab we were in at the time (Dr. Gordon at Washington University) discovered that the microbiota was not only contributing to but could also cause weight gain that all of us in the lab realized that we were on to something big and that these microbes were doing so much more than we had imagined!

In layman’s terms, what does the term “microbiota” mean? And why is it so important to have enough/the right types of gut microbiota/bacteria in the body?

The microbiota is the collection of bacteria that live on or in the human body. Usually when people refer to the microbiota they are talking about the bacteria in the gut since the gut is where most of our associated bacteria live. People also refer to the microbiota as the microbiome, but scientists usually use microbiome to refer to the collective genome of the bacteria we house.

What research has shown over the past decade is how the bacteria in our gut are wired into virtually all aspects of our health. They are setting the dial on our immune system, determining the strength and pace of our immune responses to things like viruses, they are connected to our metabolism, helping our body decide whether to burn or store extra calories, and more recently they have been linked with our body’s central nervous system, potentially influencing our moods and behaviors. In so many ways these bacteria are redefining the way biomedical researchers view the human body, no longer as a single entity but as a composite organism or a walking ecosystem made up of human cells and bacterial cells.

What has happened to gut bacteria/the microbiota in the human body over the last 100 years and why such a change?

If we use modern day traditional populations such as modern day hunter-gatherers or people living an early agrarian lifestyle as a proxy for what our microbiota was probably like before agriculture or before the mass production of processed foods, we see that their microbiota is very different from people in industrialized countries. It appears that our microbiota in the West has deteriorated. We have many fewer species or types of bacteria in our gut than these traditional peoples. There are probably many factors contributing to this decline but we think that diet is the major factor. Our gut bacteria thrive on dietary fiber and the consumption of dietary fiber in the West is abysmal compared to what traditional people groups consume. By not eating enough dietary fiber we are essentially starving our microbial self. You can think of your microbiota as an internal garden and dietary fiber as the fertilizer for that garden. Add lots of fertilizer and you will get a diverse lush garden. Starve your garden of nutrients and it will start to resemble a barren landscape with weed patches.

What is the link between gut microbiota and the incidence/maintenance of obesity?

The link between the microbiota and obesity is probably the one with the most solid scientific evidence behind it. If you give mice a microbiota from an obese individual, those mice will gain weight even if you don’t change their diet. That discovery, I think, even took the scientific community by surprise and has profound implications for how important it is to take care of our microbiota. The good news is that unlike our human genome, which is set at birth, our microbiome is in many ways under our control. Change your diet and the bacterial community in your gut will change.

What is the relationship between gut microbiota and chronic diseases/diet related diseases? 

I think one of the more important discoveries made in the past decade is how important our gut microbiota is to the functioning of our immune system. The bacteria in the gut are setting the dial on our immune system, tuning it towards either a pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory state. We know that many of the modern chronic diseases that are rising so rapidly in the west–obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, and many autoimmune diseases–are at their core diseases of excessive inflammation. There have been several studies showing that sufferers of these diseases have a disrupted microbiota. While we still don’t know whether a disrupted microbiota can cause or contribute to all of these diseases (with the exception of a causal relationship being established in the case of obesity), we know that there is a connection between these diseases and the microbiota. So the question is: what do we do while we wait for science to iron out the details of these connections? I think it is prudent at this point to assume that improving the state of one’s microbiota will be beneficial to the maintenance of one’s health! 

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Can you suggest some dietary strategies families can use (see the Sonnenburg family pictured above) to improve the amount/types of gut bacteria they have and to beneficially change the microbiota?  

You want your diet to be one that nurtures your gut bacteria towards a community that supports health rather than destroys it. Right now the best way we know how to do this is by eating lots of fiber and specifically fiber rich plants such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains. The more diverse collection of plants you eat the more diverse community of bacteria your gut can support.

If you want to track your microbiota, we highly recommend sending samples into americangut.org. This is a citizen science project run by noted scientists in the microbiota field that can provide you with information about what microbes you carry around. Submitting samples to American Gut** also allows you to contribute to microbiota research.

Any other lifestyle behaviors people can adopt/increase that may positively impact the amount/types of gut bacteria to improve health or prevent obesity/disease?

– Include fermented foods like yogurt, kimchee, sauerkraut, kefir, miso in your diet.

– Don’t go overboard when it comes to sanitizing.

– Get rid of all your antibacterial soaps and cleaners. There is no evidence that they prevent disease any more than regular soap and they may reduce your exposure to “good” bacteria and contribute to resistant bacteria.

– Pets are a wonderful way to expose yourself to more bacteria, so if you’re thinking of getting a pet here is another reason to do it.

– Remember that you are over half bacterial, so each meal should include food for both your human self and your microbes.

*The session I attended in London in which the Sonnenburgs spoke was sponsored by Beneo GmbH

**The Sonnenburgs are not affiliated with this project or profit from it in any way other than the knowledge that they make available to scientists (all anonymously of course). According to the Sonnenburgs, “We recommend it because we know the people running the project know what they are doing and they are not profiting financially from this endeavor. The money they charge for the analysis just covers the cost of the data generation. I think this is important since as this field grows there will be (and probably already are) companies with dubious credentials aiming to profit financially from people’s interest in the microbiota.”

Image of the Sonnenburg family via the Sonnenburgs. 

To learn more about the Sonnenburgs, The Good Gut, and all their wonderful and timely work, visit their website

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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized registered dietitian nutritionist, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books and is currently working on her first novel. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook.

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