How to Optimize Your Health – Lifestyle

Adjustments you can make to your lifestyle to keep your microbiome healthy.

Opt for natural birth if possible

Our first encounter with the microbial planet is during childbirth, when we are gifted with a smattering of microbes in our mother’s birth canal. By opting for an elective Cesarean section, we skip the baby’s trip through the birth canal, and deprive it of this microbial ‘starter pack.’ C-sections can be a lifesaving procedure for mother and baby when a vaginal delivery isn’t an option. However, public health officials and healthcare professionals would do well to appropriately educate and encourage pregnant women to opt for natural births where possible, and to only resort to C-sections where absolutely necessary (in other words, where a natural birth would put the mother or child at risk).

In cases where birth by C-section is non-negotiable, swabbing the infant with bacteria from the birth canal is a good workaround, and offers some of the immune protection to the baby that a vaginal birth would have.

If possible, breastfeed for at least six months

Mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed for as long as possible – ideally more than six months – unless medical reasons prevent them from doing so. This confers a host of benefits on the child, with lasting health implications. These include training its immune system, reducing its risk of developing obesity or metabolic disease later in life, and providing protection against allergies and infection.

Breastmilk also contains oligosaccharides, which circumvent the baby’s small intestine and travel straight to its gut microbiota. Here, they remove pathogens from the intestinal wall, and are a food source for Bifidobacteria – one of two beneficial bacteria that dominate the baby’s microbiota. Bifidobacteria feed on oligosaccharides and produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) – butyrate, acetate, propionate, and lactate. Lactate is very beneficial for babies, as it feeds the cells in the colon and plays a key role in developing its immune system. SCFAs also help the baby digest insoluble fibers and extract essential nutrients.

Exclusive breastfeeding is ideal, but where the mother doesn’t produce enough breastmilk, then combining breastfeeding with bottle feeding is the next best option to optimize gut health.

Limit antibiotic usage, particularly in young children

Limiting antibiotic usage is essential for maintaining a healthy microbiome. Antibiotics can disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria in our gut, leading to dysbiosis and an increased risk of infection. This is particularly true in young children, whose immune systems are still developing and who may be more vulnerable to the effects of antibiotics.

Studies have shown that infants exposed to multiple courses of antibiotics before their first birthday had significantly lower levels of Bifidobacteria than those who were not exposed. This genus has been linked with improved health outcomes such as reduced risk of obesity and diabetes later on in life. Furthermore, research suggests that early exposure to antibiotics increases the risk for asthma and allergies by up to 50%.

It’s important to remember that antibiotics should only be used when absolutely necessary – they cannot treat viral infections like colds or flu, so it’s best to consult your doctor before taking them unnecessarily. If you do need an antibiotic course, consider supplementing with probiotics afterwards as this can help restore microbial diversity in your gut.

Get regular exercise, part 1

We all know the host of health benefits associated with regular physical exercise, notably, its ability to regulate weight and metabolic activity, increase insulin sensitivity and improve overall health. There is growing evidence to suggest that regular physical activity also benefits our microbial companions by regulating our gut microbiome.

In one study, researchers observed professional rugby players and found that exercise increases diversity in the gut microbiota compared to the sedentary control group. They found that protein consumption correlates with microbial diversity, and that the athletes with a low body mass index, or BMI (calculated by dividing weight by height squared) had substantially higher proportions of Akkermansia muciniphila, the microbe associated with leanness. They also found that athletes have “lower inflammatory and improved metabolic markers relative to controls.”

Get regular exercise, part 2

Another study showed that women who exercised three times a week had a higher abundance of health-promoting bacteria, including Bifidobacterium and Akkermansia. These results suggest that regular physical activity, even at a low to moderate intensity, can be beneficial for gut health.

Another group of researchers conducted studies on mice and found that five weeks of exercise training resulted in an increased production of the short-chain fatty acid, butyrate. Butyrate is a product of the fermentation of dietary fiber that humans are unable to digest by themselves. It’s fermented and digested by friendly gut bacteria such as Bifidobacteria.

Butyrate is very beneficial for humans as it regulates the immune system and gene expression and promotes the integrity of the gut barrier – the layer of mucus that acts as a gatekeeper to prevent harmful bacteria from slipping into the bloodstream and potentially causing disease. Overall, then, physical exercise can benefit our gut microbes by improving microbial diversity and increasing butyrate production.

Practice stress reduction techniques

The effect of stress on our gut microbiota falls under the banner of the brain-gut axis. Research suggests that stress alters the permeability of the mucosal layer, triggering the secretion of cytokines, which leads to inflammation. Not only that, but stress can significantly alter the structure and activity of our gut microbiota, and may be one of the causes of dysbiosis. Research also suggests that there is a close interaction between the gut microbiota and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – the major neuroendocrine system that regulates our response to stress.

Stress can also increase sensitivity and reduce blood flow in the gut. Studies on mice have shown that different types of stress – such as isolation, crowding and heat stress – can reduce the diversity of gut flora.

Stress is an inevitable part of our modern lives, but we can mitigate it – and its effect on our gut health – by practicing stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, yoga and breathing exercises.

Get enough sleep, part 1

The importance of sleep for our overall health – and that of our microbiota – cannot be overstated. Sleep disorders have been associated with lowered immunity, neurodegenerative diseases, and cognitive decline. They also place us at greater risk of becoming obese or developing metabolic disease or type 2 diabetes.

You might have heard of the circadian rhythm: the system of hormones that are deployed at different times of day that governs our internal ‘body clock’. The gut microbiota, while not exposed to this light and dark cycle, are still affected by it. Intriguingly, variations in our circadian rhythm can affect the availability of nutrients and our production of auto-antibodies and peptides.

Auto-antibodies are found in people with autoimmune diseases. Peptides are short chains of amino acids that help us fight infection and promote wound healing. They also play a role in muscle growth and may assist with weight loss.

Fluctuations in the circadian rhythm can also affect our absorption of lipids, which is regulated by our gut microbes. These disruptions may promote diet-induced obesity.

Get enough sleep, part 2

Two common disruptors of the body’s internal clock are jetlag and disrupted sleep patterns (for instance, in shift workers). Studies have suggested that these disruptions can lead to changes in the microbiota that can increase dietary intake, promote an inflammatory response leading to metabolic changes, and promote glucose intolerance and obesity. These findings are significant because they show that while diet plays an important role in shaping our gut health, the interplay between diet and lifestyle factors – such as sleep duration and quality – has the potential to alter our feeding behaviors and amplify the effect of diet on gut health.

Specifically, feeding behaviors have a “powerful training effect” on the liver and intestine. This means that it’s possible that by manipulating feeding time, duration, and frequency we can influence the gut microbiota and, by extension, our health.

In another study of young individuals of normal weight, partial sleep deprivation subtly changed gut composition by increasing the ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes.

Stop smoking

Smoking is one of the most damaging lifestyle habits for our gut microbiome. Studies have shown that smoking can reduce the diversity and abundance of beneficial bacteria in the gut, leading to an increased risk of inflammation and disease. Smoking also increases levels of harmful toxins such as cadmium which can damage cells in the digestive tract, impairing their ability to absorb nutrients from food.

Quitting smoking has been linked with improved mental wellbeing, reduced stress levels and a healthier microbiome. Research suggests that quitting smoking may even reverse some of its negative effects on our gut health; within just two weeks after quitting, there was an increase in beneficial bacterial species such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus which are important for digestion and immune function.

It’s never too late to quit – if you’re looking for support then consider joining a local stop-smoking group or speaking to your doctor about nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). There are also many online resources available including apps like Smokefree which provide tailored advice on how to quit successfully.

Limit alcohol consumption

Limiting alcohol consumption is an important part of maintaining a healthy microbiome. Alcohol can disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria in our gut, leading to dysbiosis and an increased risk of infection. Studies have shown that even moderate drinking can reduce levels of beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, while increasing levels of harmful toxins like acetaldehyde which can damage cells in the digestive tract. Heavy drinking has been linked to inflammation, leaky gut syndrome and liver disease.

It’s not all bad news though – research suggests that occasional light drinking may actually be beneficial for your microbiome; one study found that red wine drinkers had higher levels of Akkermansia muciniphila, a type of bacteria associated with improved metabolic health. However, it’s best to stick to recommended guidelines; no more than 14 units per week for men or women (equivalent to 6 pints/bottles beer or 10 small glasses wine). If you are concerned about your alcohol intake then speak to your doctor who will be able to provide advice on how best to manage it safely.

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