5 Ways To Support Your Microbiome For Better Immune Health
Your body is home to trillions of microbes – around 100 trillion, to be exact – most of which reside in your gut. These microorganisms include fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Collectively, they're known as the 'microbiome'.
The microbiome has a large influence on your immune health and is essential for the development of your innate and adaptive immunity. The microbiome and the immune system have evolved to form a symbiotic relationship, meaning one assists and benefits the other. In fact, poor gut health and lack of microbial diversity can negatively impact immune function and are associated with an increased risk of autoimmune diseases.
Among the trillions of microorganisms living in this microbial community, you will find both commensal ('good') bacteria and pathogenic ('bad') bacteria. Optimal gut health relies on the right balance of microbes so that the colonies of commensal ones outnumber the pathogenic ones.
There are many environmental and lifestyle factors – diet, exercise, medication, sleep, stress, etc. – that play a role in your microbiome health. Therefore, it's important to manage these variables as much as possible to maintain a healthy immune system.
Diet is a great place to start since it's something you have control over every day. Here are five ways to ensure your diet supports your microbiome and optimal immune health:
1. Load up on high-fiber, prebiotic foods
Just like you, your gut microbes have to eat in order to thrive. And dietary fiber is the single best thing you can feed your gut flora.
When fiber doesn't get digested by your digestive system, it gets fermented by the good bacteria in your gut. In other words, these dietary fibers become prebiotics which feed the probiotics, or healthy bacteria, in your gut.
A gut-supportive diet consists of a wide variety of mostly plant-based, high-fiber foods. This will feed the good bacteria, contribute to their growth, and help maintain a healthy microbiome balance that favors the growth of beneficial bacteria over pathogenic ones.
Although all prebiotics are fiber, not all fiber is prebiotic. Prebiotics are the non-digestive carbohydrates, or resistant starches, found in many fruits and vegetables. Foods that are particularly rich in prebiotic fiber include:
- Fruits: bananas, apples, nectarines, peaches, watermelon, pomegranate, grapefruit
- Vegetables: asparagus, artichokes, garlic, onions, leeks, jicama root, seaweed
- Legumes: kidney beans, baked beans, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans
- Whole grains: oats, barley, rye bread, couscous, wheat bran
- Nuts and seeds: cashews, pistachios, flax seeds
As gut microbes break down the dietary fiber in these foods, they produce metabolites such as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These metabolites help support the immune system, limit the growth of invasive pathogens, combat inflammation and help us stay healthy overall.
Fruits and vegetables have been shown to be especially beneficial sources of fiber as they can promote the growth of good bacteria and inhibit disease-causing bacteria.
2. Eat probiotic foods regularly
Probiotics are live microorganisms that possess health benefits when consumed. They are the commensal bacteria that you get from foods and supplements. Put simply, they support a balanced gut microbiome by increasing the number of 'good' bacteria in your gut.
Here are the best food sources of probiotics:
- Fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi)
- Fermented dairy products and dairy alternatives (yogurt, cottage cheese)
- Fermented drinks (kefir and kombucha)
- Fermented soybeans (miso, tempeh, natto)
When purchasing probiotic foods, make sure to look for the words "active and live cultures" on the label.
3. Take a daily pre + probiotic supplement
While many foods provide probiotics and prebiotics, we don't always get the adequate quantity or a wide enough variety from diet alone. Therefore, supplements can play an important role in supporting the intestinal microbiome, when also paired with a healthy diet.
However, not all probiotic supplements are effective. When considering a probiotic supplement, you want to make sure it does three things:
- Contain the right types of well-researched bacteria species, in high quantities (measured by the colony forming unit (CFU) count)
- Contains a diverse array of probiotic strains, not just one or two isolated strains. Your gut microbial community includes more than 400 species, which interact in complex manners, therefore your probiotic supplement should be diverse too.
- Ensure these live microorganisms are delivered to your colon properly
Blueshift's Pre + Probiotic Ultra packs 50 billion CFUs (colony-forming units) of 10 diverse and science backed probiotic strains. It also contains PreForProⓇ, a clinically-proven source of prebiotics that helps get rid of harmful bacteria while supporting the growth of beneficial ones.
The high CFU count and diversity of these beneficial bacteria strains provides comprehensive and optimal gut health support. Plus, this pre+probiotic is shelf-stable and can be taken on the go. Simply mix it with water for an effective, easy, and delicious way to support your microbiome.
4. Limit highly processed foods and added sugars
Over and over again, research shows that Western diets, which are high in processed foods, animal-derived saturated fats, and added sugars, can pose a risk to human health and lead to many chronic diseases.
Highly processed foods lack nutrients and fiber and can lead to gut dysbiosis, disrupting the microbiome balance by increasing the levels of pathogenic bacteria and decreasing beneficial bacteria.
Foods such as processed meats increase the production of harmful microorganisms, increasing inflammation in the gut and the risk for colon cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Added sugars are refined sugars that make their way into almost every processed food available, especially sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. Added sugar contributes calories without adding any nutritional value. It also disrupts blood sugar levels and can alter the composition of the microbiome, favoring the growth of bacteria that degrade the gut lining. This promotes inflammation and can increase intestinal permeability, which is associated with many gastrointestinal diseases.
To avoid the empty sugar calories, many people turn to "sugar free" products. These are often sweetened with artificial sweeteners like acesulfame K, advantame, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, and saccharine. Non-caloric artificial sweeteners aren't classified as "added sugars'' but they can also negatively affect the gut microbiome.
Limiting the consumption of the following foods, or completely avoiding them, is one way to support your microbiome and boost your immune system:
- Processed and packaged snacks that are high in salt and low in fiber (potato chips, white crackers, cheese puffs)
- Processed meats (cold cuts, hot dogs, bacon, sausage)
- Sugar and/or artificially sweetened beverages (soda/diet soda, sweetened tea, sports drinks)
- Baked goods (cookies, cakes, brownies, muffins) and candy
- Sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals and granola bars
- Deep fried foods (fried chicken, french fries, mozzarella sticks)
- Alcoholic beverages
5. Prioritize plant-based foods over animal foods
One of the best ways to increase the diversity of your gut microbiome and support your immune system is to increase your consumption of plant-based foods.
Given that plants are the only sources of dietary fiber, consuming a variety of plant-based foods will support a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut. Conversely, a diet low in fiber will negatively affect your microbiome.
Several studies have shown that plant-based diets can lead to reduced levels of disease-causing bacteria, lowered intestinal inflammation, and increased levels of beneficial bacteria.
Research shows that people consuming plant-based diets have a significantly greater microbial richness, or diversity, compared to those consuming omnivorous diets high in animal foods. Plant foods also provide an array of important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to support a healthy immune system.
Additionally, consumption of red meat, especially processed red meat, is directly correlated with an increased risk for colorectal cancer, as meat promotes the growth of harmful bacteria and carcinogenic compounds in the gut. According to this study, people can eat up to 18 oz (approximately 500 g) of red meat a week (or approximately 70 g/day) without raising cancer risk.
Incorporating more whole plant foods – fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds – into your diet helps promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. This, in turn, helps support your immune health.
A healthy gut equals a healthy, happy you
Your microbiome plays a pivotal role in your overall health and well-being. It can dictate the course of your health as the gut is highly connected to your immune system, digestive health, cognitive function, and even your mental health.
The foods and supplements you consume can significantly impact the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, and therefore can influence your overall gut health. Aim for a diet rich in fiber and plant-based foods, probiotics, and prebiotics. Also, try to limit your intake of red meats and processed foods. In addition to a microbiome-friendly diet, a daily prebiotic and probiotic supplement can be an effective way to support a flourishing microbiome and robust immune system.