Nature’s Hitchhiker

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You could call them passive freeloaders; hitchhikers even. Roaming the avenues of our gut, residing in the dark alleyways of our intestine, and fuelling off the crumbs left by fellow tourists.

And, just like hitchhikers, these little guys get it all for free. ZILTCH. NADA. A big fat ZERO.

But, unlike hitchhikers, these little fellas don’t just come along for the ride; they give more than they take. In fact, without them we as a human race would be virtually non-existent. ZILTCH. NADA. A big fat ZERO.

Although their names extend far beyond the complexity of a German freeloader or a Swedish couch surfer, the microbes within the microbiome live in a land far beyond what any hitchhiker has the time (or the bodily dimensions) to explore. Yep. The microbiome is an intricate, ever evolving and fascinating world of its own. And the most exciting thing? This world is all yours to explore.

So, let’s go on an adventure.

What then is the Microbiome?

The collection of microbes that live in and on the human body is known as the microbiota. The microbiome therefore refers to the complete set of genes within these microbes. A vast majority of them reside in the gastrointestinal tract (often referred to as the ‘gut’). The gut microbiome mainly comprises bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes and is critical to proper bodily functions.

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Have you ever picked up a hitchhiker? (If you haven’t, just pretend for the time being). To set the scene, I’ll use overly inventive names and ever-so mesmeric cases.

Case Number 1:

You’re driving down the M1, wind in your hair, tunes blasting from your radio and not a care in the world. As you’re driving, you spy an impeccably dressed, Adonis-like young man. As he lifts his thumb, smile illuminating the asphalt, your foot slams on the brake. Fernando is his name. Charming man from a small country town in need of a lift to the airport. And if his looks aren’t a good enough incentive already, Fernando even offers to buy you hot chips at the station on the way. Done, hop on in Fernando!

Case Number 2:

After reluctantly dropping off Fernando (but not before finding out his half-sister’s brother is your cousin – there goes your husband and three kids idea), you stumble across another hitchhiker. Bruce has not had a shower in what smells like years. His manners are virtually non-existent and his dishevelled clothes are stained black. Despite your opposition, Bruce jumps aboard and comes along for the journey.

Now let’s take a step back.

If you haven’t figured it out already, microbes are analogous to these hitchhikers. Some are desirable and well-sought after (like our beau Fernando), whereas others are a full-blown liability (like old mate Bruce).

We have both. And, we need both.

Thankfully, there are far more Fernandos than Bruces in our world (and our gut). In fact, in a happy and healthy gut, more than 85% of the microbes are ‘good’.

So, what are ‘good’ microbes?

Put simply, ‘good’ microbes promote good health. Just like the number plates on our cars, or Fernando’s luscious mane and twinkling eyes, our microbiome is specific to us. For this reason, and also because there is still so much about our microbiome we are yet to understand, it is difficult to say what exactly a healthy microbiome is.

Although preliminary research has shown us that one of the most important things microbes do for us is to help with digestion, recent studies have also demonstrated that the roles of these microbes extend far beyond this. Other roles of good microbes include:

• Regulating the immune system and reducing the risk of immune-related diseases
• Contributing to brain functioning and optimal brain health
• Contributing to a healthy circulatory system and heart health
• Controlling blood sugar and reduce risk of obesity and diabetes
• Controlling sleep and the sleep-wake cycle

You don’t have to be genius to figure out that an imbalance of microbes in the gut will therefore compromise an abundance of functions within our body.

Que: poor immune system, impaired brain functioning, compromised heart health and obesity and diabetes.

But not all hope is lost; we can change our microbiome to facilitate healthy bodily functions.

Here are some ways we can promote ‘good’ microbes in our gut:

1. Eat the Right Food

Gut microbes digest and ferment foods which can stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria. Hence, your gut microbiome responds to what you feed it. Here are some top tips to keep your gut well fed and thriving:

a. Eat as many different plant-based wholefoods as possible. Some health-promoting foods for the gut include:
• Onions
• Leeks
• Garlic
• Barley
• Legumes
• Fermented probiotic foods (e.g. sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt)

b. Choose variety – this can lead to a diverse microbiome.

c. Avoid eating too much meat, refined sugar, and processed foods

d. Avoid alcohol

2. Skip the Antibiotics

Aside from making changes to your diet, the best way to improve your gut health is to ensure you only take antibiotics when absolutely necessary. This is because if you take antibiotics often, you can upset the balance of microbes in your gut – remember, if we target bad bacteria, we automatically target good bacteria as well.

3. Manage your Stress Levels

Our gut affects how our brain functions. But what many people do not know is that this highway is multidirectional; our brain can affect our gut health as well! Although stress is unavoidable, there are many things we can do to reduce our stress levels, such as managing our time better, getting enough sleep, connecting with others, and taking time out for yourself.

4. Exercise (but not too much)

A balanced training regime that consists of low-moderate intensity activities, occasional high intensity activities, and regular strength training could help you build a better microbiome.

5. Take a Probiotic Supplement

Probiotics help maintain your gut’s ecosystem by ‘reseeding’ it with healthy microbes. Probiotics are ‘good bacteria’ and there are many different species including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Many probiotic supplements combine different species together in the same supplement. Probiotics also occur naturally in some foods including yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso.

Just like the highways in the cities, the thoroughfares in the suburbs, and the one-way streets we always forget are one way streets until it’s too late (admit it), our gut is a fascinating, multifaceted and at times baffling place. By adopting healthy practices like the ones above, the potholes within our gut can be reduced, the lining can be nurtured, and bad microbes can be eradicated. That doesn’t mean, however, that future potholes will not arise, or that more Bruce’s will not jump on in for the ride. However, it will give you a head start at this never-ending drag race towards a healthier microbiome and ultimately better health.

So, thumbs up to a healthy gut (and never looking at your best mate Bruce in the same way again)!

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alice bleathman

Alice Bleathman is currently completing her third year of a Bachelor of Food and Nutrition Science at Deakin University, with an aim to gain a spot into the Masters of Dietetics. Alice has always had a passion for both food and helping people, and believes that by studying nutrition she can continue in pursuing such a passion. Alice is hopeful that her yearn for travel and writing and will act as a platform for a future career in international nutrition journalism, rural health and nutrition, and health promotion.