Why Is It Important to Have a Diverse Microbiome? Threats & Opportunities for Our Gut

Heather Campbell
 min read

Why is it important to have a diverse microbiome?

Why Is It Important to Have a Diverse Microbiome? Threats & Opportunities for Our GutA rich and diverse microbiome means both enough gut bacteria and many different types of gut bacteria.

As a general rule, a diverse and healthy microbiome with large amounts of bacteria from different bacterial families is important. Different gut bacteria perform different duties, so having the right mix will ensure a healthy gut, and thus a healthy body.

A diverse microbiome: Introduction

Compare it to employees in a company. You have to have enough employees, but it’s no use if every employee has the same expertise.

In other words, you need various types of employees (technical profiles, financial profiles, creative profiles, consulting-oriented profiles, management profiles, etc.). Each of them is strong in their field and has specific expertise.

Only with a diverse team can you speak of a healthy and thriving business.

So it is also the case with our intestinal system, where this diversity of specializations is vital to speak of a healthy microbiome.

Each bacterium in our gut works a little differently than the others. Among the bacteria that comprise our microbiome, there are both better and worse kinds. In any case, you definitely want a good, healthy, and diverse microbiome.

Four threats to our gut

The average western adult has about 1,200 different types of bacteria in their gut.

That may seem like a lot until you realize that the average Native American in the Amazon has roughly 1,600 species of gut bacteria (that’s over 30% more different types of gut bacteria).

Our distant ancestors probably had many more and thus had an incredibly diverse microbiome with lots of different bacteria of all shapes and sizes.

However, there have been a few key factors in recent decades that have unfortunately led to a decline in the diversity of gut bacteria in the Western population:

  • More cesarean sections in deliveries and less breastfeeding for newborn babies
  • Widespread use of antibiotics (when they are not always needed)
  • Mass consumption of industrialized and ultra-processed foods
  • Excessive hygiene (which is not good for resistance)

More cesarean sections and less breastfeeding: First threat

Evolution of childbirth

For example, good hygiene and clean drinking water have saved us from cholera.

But it seems that nature has not destined us to go through life completely untainted.

When you are born as a baby and see the light of day through your mother’s vulva, you are given a healthy dose of bacteria that immediately takes up residence in your gut.

This is useful because, in this way, good bacteria take up a place in your gut, and consequently, there is less to no place left for the bad bacteria.

Unfortunately, the number of “sterile” cesarean sections has increased dramatically, so the above is no longer always the case.

In the United States, for example, about 1 in 3 women will have a C-section.

Evolution of baby food

Breastfeeding also exposes you as a newborn to all kinds of bacteria on your mother’s body (versus the sterile pacifier of the milk bottle).

From birth, the baby’s close society with various microbes begins.

The newborn child is like a newly-built, empty house for the microbes. Thus, who will live in that house is essential to the condition of that house (and thus to the health of the baby).

Widespread use of antibiotics: Second threat

In this day and age of excessive hygiene, we may find the idea of all those bacteria in our guts a frightening one.

Everything in us is set to kill bacteria, and antibiotics are our heroes in this regard these days. The name says it all: anti-bacterial.

This is somewhat quite understandable when you see where we are coming from. At the beginning of the last century, antibiotics helped us bring down the rate of childhood diseases and mortality.

Thanks to this new drug, a great many acute infections could be nipped in the bud.

But did you know that a course of antibiotics wipes out a lot of our much-needed gut bacteria? What remains after such a cure is a limp extract of what was originally a cozy tangle of bacteria in the gut.

So, unfortunately, antibiotics drastically decrease the diversity of your microbiome.

Excessive use of antibiotics upsets our body’s natural balance and studies show that the diversity in your microbiome drops by 25 to 30% after a course of antibiotics.

Ultra-processed foods: Third threat

Our one-sided diet causes our gut bacteria to starve.

The more diverse your diet, the more you ensure that all your gut bacteria are getting enough to eat. Indeed, so you eat for your gut bacteria as well.

You can grow a diverse microbiome through a varied diet of fresh and unprocessed foods. For example, our ancestors had a tremendously diverse diet. Unprocessed, varied, and with lots of fiber.

One population group that may be most similar to our distant ancestors is the Hadza of Tanzania in Africa. Here they were able to live secluded from the rest of the civilized world for centuries.

Their diet and microbiome approximate that of our ancestors before the emergence of agriculture.

The Hadza people eat berries, wild meat, fruits, tubers, seeds, and kernels. It is estimated that the Hadza eat something like 3.5 to 5.5 ounces of fiber per day.

This is not comparable to Americans, who sometimes eat only 0.5 ounces of fiber per day (or Europeans, who eat only 0.75 ounces of fiber per day).

So you can probably imagine what this means for the diversity of the Hadza’s microbiome.That diversity is simply enormous.

However, it is not made easy for us in the Western world. Namely, the diversity of our crops has been dramatically reduced by the method of agriculture.

For example, where we now grow a few dozen different varieties of potatoes, almost 5,000 different varieties used to exist. And the same goes for bananas, for example.

Excessive hygiene: Fourth threat

It may seem very contradictory to some, but not clean is not always unhealthy!

The greater the variety of bacteria and the greater the variation of your microbiome, the healthier you will become and stay.

A large part of your natural resistance is built up in the process.

Exposure to bacteria is recommended

Crawling around our toddlers exposes them to a wide variety of microbes in and around the house. This strengthens the young toddler and challenges the child’s immune system, which is actually good instead of harmful.

Believe it or not, over 30% of people have some form of poop bacteria on their hands.

So when you shake hands with someone, chances are you are exchanging poop bacteria. But fortunately, and strangely, you rarely get sick from this.

We have always been taught to wash our hands and shower daily and thus to get rid of bad viruses and bacteria as much as possible.

This almost compulsive pursuit of excessive hygiene would supposedly protect us from getting sick.

But in reality, it’s better not to be too clean either. Compare it to the sport of boxing for a moment to clarify. You can’t become a good boxer just by throwing punches. You also learn by taking blows because then you learn to protect and arm yourself.

And so it goes in our bodies too! Your body needs to be able to absorb. And pursuing excessive hygiene achieves just the opposite!

Poop transplants for a healthier microbiome

Did you know that poop transplants exist?

Therefore, it is possible to import a diverse and healthy microbiome into your body using a poop transplant.

Indeed, you can become the happy owner of someone else’s gut waste with a healthy and diverse microbiome.

This allows you to restore any imbalance in your gut. And this is a lovely example of good recycling, isn’t it?

A poop transplant is nothing new. In the fourth century (literally ages ago!), the Chinese researcher Ge Hong gave patients with severe diarrhea yellow soup. But this yellow soup at the time was a drink made from fresh or fermented human poop!

Through a poop transplant, your excess weight can melt away like snow in the sun (if you get the poop of a skinny person, for example).

The secret to a good poop transplant is the portion of healthy and varied new gut bacteria in that poop.

In fact, more and more people are also interested in the quality and composition of their own gut bacteria. Having your stool examined with a complete analysis of your microbiome is therefore offered by more and more laboratories.

It is also possible to undergo a poop transplant in the United States. The donor poop comes from strictly screened volunteers. The diluted, filtered donor poop is injected through a tube through the nose directly into the bowel.

Gut microbes are helpful multitaskers

Our gut microbes are multi-purpose and, for example, take care of the breakdown of indigestible dietary fiber that our bodies cannot break down themselves.

Fruits and vegetables contain what is known as soluble (a type of jelly) and non-soluble fiber (the threads).

Clearing excess sugars and protecting the liver

In fruit, these fibers stick together to form a sealed jelly-like network on the inside of your intestinal wall. Think of it as a kind of Vaseline-sealed mesh (grease gauze) that insulates and protects our intestinal wall.

Thus, the sugar in fruit cannot be absorbed immediately because it has difficulty passing through this Vaseline-gel-fiber-fat layer. This layer of fat prevents a rapid influx of sugars to your liver when you eat fruit.

In other words, fiber is the antidote to sugary fruit. So the sugar is not absorbed quickly and travels further down the small intestine to the ‘jejunum.’

Here the sugar from fruit comes into contact with our gut microbes, who are very happy with it. These gut bacteria eat what they are offered (an actual win-win situation).

In other words, through this mechanism, the intestinal bacteria stay healthy. At the same time, you take in fewer calories to gain fewer pounds.

This is thus very different for fruit juice without fiber.

Because it is precisely the fiber in fruits and vegetables that protects your liver by inhibiting an overflow of sugar intake, preventing you from gaining weight, and nourishing your gut bacteria.

On the other hand, fruit juice is, therefore, a very different story because you remove the essential fiber.

As a result, you get all sugars and calories, with consequences for your liver, sugar levels, and weight.

RelatedHow to Keep Blood Sugar Stable? Strategies for Maintaining Stable Blood Glucose Levels

Training and maintaining the immune system

In addition, good gut bacteria also train the immune system. They teach the immune system to take action only when pathogens invade and try to take over.

Gut bacteria also prevent the growth of harmful bacteria by competing with them. They produce hormones and vitamins, such as vitamin K, which we need for blood clotting.

Gut microbes regulate the development of the intestinal system and even influence our behavior.

More and more scientific studies show that the amount and variety of bacteria (or the lack of bacteria) in and on our bodies are linked to diseases such as MS, autism, cardiovascular disease, eczema, celiac disease, asthma, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, and allergies.

Microbiome and weight: What is the connection?

The diversity of our microbiome even affects our weight.

This is a fascinating and relatively new piece of science that we will hear a lot about in the future.

For example, scientists could already predict from the composition of the gut bacteria in babies whether they would become overweight or not, without even knowing anything about effective eating or exercise behavior.

There has also been a lot of research done with mice where scientists have shown that lean mice become overweight by poop transplanting a dose of gut bacteria from overweight mice.

This, by the way, without changing anything else about those mice’s eating or exercise habits.

So gut bacteria determined the weight of those mice and thus appeared to have quite an effect on the biology of a host.

So the microbiome determines what happens to your diet and whether you gain weight from it or not.

That same microbiome also has a significant effect on the digestion of food.

If you have a healthy, large, diverse microbiome, you digest fairly high-fat foods very differently than your neighbor.

For example, it may be that the microbiome is self-appropriating a large portion of the calories in the diet, and there is nothing left for you.

That’s great for your figure because then you won’t get fat from that food. But beware because that doesn’t make a high-fat snack healthy.

For decades, farmers have known that administering antibiotics reduces the diversity of your microbiome and causes farm animals (cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, etc.) to gain some weight.

Laboratory animals such as mice also become fatter after the administration of antibiotics.

Is this also happening to our children? For example, do our children also get fat from antibiotics?

Well, in a study with about 11,000 British children, it was found that children who had received antibiotics at a very young age (less than 6 months) were on average heavier than children who had not received antibiotics.

And this difference in weight was still noticeable at the age of three.

This demonstrates that antibiotic use at a very young age has long-lasting effects on the balance of the microbiome and causes an increased risk of obesity.

Related: Why Is Obesity a Risk Factor for Chronic Disease? + Prevention Tips

How to improve your microbiome?

How can we improve our gut bacteria’s diversity, variety, and quality?

How do we ensure that we are once again hospitable to our microbes and welcome back multiple new and healthy gut bacteria?

When we think of healthy eating rules of thumb, we often think in too simplistic terms. Because if what we eat gives us a healthy weight, then it will be good enough surely?

But in practice, it is crucial to focus on diversity. Put another way, to regain a diversity of gut bacteria, you must eat a diversity of foods yourself.

So make sure you become a culinary globetrotter and really eat all kinds of things.

Eat a lot, different, foreign, domestic, varied, and so on. Dare to give forgotten fruits and vegetables a chance too!

Vary with herbs, vegetables, beans, brown rice, lentils, and fruit. By doing so, you are pampering your gut bacteria that absolutely do not want to eat the same thing every day.

Gut microbes are, in reality, quite picky so vary your diet! Eat carrots once, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, radishes, etc.

The more varied you eat, the more varied your microbiome becomes.

Another way is to simply eat ready-made microbes. You will find these in fermented products, for example.

In any case, pamper your gut bacteria and don’t think about diets or what you can or can’t eat.

Think especially about what you should definitely eat to obtain a diverse and varied diet.

The different bacteria in our gut have a preference for different food components. Food nourishes both you and your gut microbes.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has reported that food diversity has declined by about 75% in the last 100 years.

So anything you can do to increase that diversity definitely contributes to your health.

Try to eat many different types of vegetables and vary them regularly (while avoiding agricultural chemicals as much as possible). Eat at least 9 ounces of vegetables a day, preferably more than that. You can eat vegetables at lunch and dinner, no problem!

Add fresh herbs and look for forgotten vegetables. Originated from among local farmers or rather from a distant land.

Surprise your gut. It’s good for your microbiome! Sometimes your intestines startle, and you hear a lot of strange and sometimes even slightly embarrassing sounds.

At such times, it starts bubbling and gassing in your intestines.

But don’t get caught off guard, and don’t be alarmed by unpleasant gases. Because this is, in fact, the sign that your gut is challenged.

They have to get going, the food is different than usual, and it takes a different group of gut bacteria.

Want to know if you’re on the right track? Then look in your toilet bowl after doing a number two. What does the result look like?

Are your bowels flowing well? Is the amount of stool decent? What does the color look like? Are your bowels nice and active, and bubbly? Is the stool not too runny or hard? Doesn’t it stink too much?

Make sure you have a well-filled toilet bowl daily, and make sure you are proud of your stool.

A diverse microbiome: Conclusion

A rich diversity of gut microbiota is crucial for our health.

Our weight, for example, is determined by a plethora of factors, including your metabolism and how your calories are provided, but also by gut bacteria.

The amount these gut microbes eat and digest in your gut is hard to fathom.

So make sure at all costs that your gut bacteria are getting a varied, fiber-rich, and also vegetable-rich diet.

If your microbiome is happy, healthy, and diverse, you will be happy and healthy yourself!

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More