How do I know if I have a healthy microbiome?
Let’s take a trip to the (microbiome) gym
After reading the last two blog posts, you may be asking yourself now – how do I know if I have a healthy microbiome? Do I need to do a stool test? While understanding of this continues to evolve, the scientific community has learned enough to give us a good idea of what to look for. To get a better idea of what a healthy microbiome looks like, let’s use our imaginations here for a moment. Think of the gut microbiome like you would the muscles in your body. You go to the gym a few times per week to lift weights, but you only ever work out your arms. Your triceps and biceps are very strong and you don’t often feel sore or tired when working out these muscles. One day you are feeling spontaneous and you try to work a different part of your body- let’s say your legs- and you try to do 30 squats. Unlike your strong and resilient arms, you have a hard time getting through all 30 reps and the next day you are so sore you are barely able to walk from your intense leg workout.
Now let’s compare this to the gut microbiome and say that you follow a simple diet of 90% apples, Caesar salads, steak, and potatoes. You haven’t ever had many issues with this but you do feel tired and
occasionally struggle with constipation. This simple diet is your arms – strong biceps and triceps only. You have trained your microbiome to be excellent at digesting these particular foods and they know what to expect when you start to eat. That is all well and good until you go out to a work potluck and eat egg salad, quinoa, grilled vegetables, and ice cream for dessert. Uh oh. Just like your underdeveloped leg muscles doing 30 squats, your microbiome has no idea what to do with these new foods! You develop bloating, gas, and constipation or diarrhea and suffer the next day at least. This is leg day, but for your gut. If we can think about our microbiomes as a body with many different muscles that all require attention and training to be strong, healthy, and resilient, we can avoid these periods of pain and soreness. When we go to the “microbiome gym” we want to train it to be able to handle many different kinds of foods, and to do that we need to eat many different kinds of foods!
This is all to say that one of the major hallmarks of a healthy microbiome is the ability to be resilient and is essentially the absence of symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain, diarrhea/constipation, nausea, and food sensitivities. Other lesser known aspects of a healthy microbiome include improved energy, healthy weight, clear skin, and a positive mood. Providing diversity in our diet is one of the easiest ways to provide your microbiome with the training it needs.
What about stool testing?
Another way of better understanding the quality of your microbiome is through stool testing. Several labs have stool testing options available and we utilize these often clinically to support our patients and learn more about what specifically is out of balance in their microbiomes. These tests can provide data about the levels of certain species of bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and other digestive markers that can guide treatment. They are also useful for ruling out infectious causes of disease. Every person’s microbiome is totally unique and personal to them, like a fingerprint. An unbalanced microbiome in one person can be very different than another, even if they have similar symptoms. Each person would require different and personalized treatment approaches depending on their particular results. Now that we know what a healthy microbiome looks like, how can we take steps to improve the health of our microbiomes? We will tackle this question and more in the next blog post in this series.
Dr. Conway’s approach to patient care begins with talking about the gut. The quality and variety of food we put in our bodies is directly connected to the quality of our health. He enjoys supporting patients with a variety of complaints including gas, bloating, abdominal pain, food sensitivities/intolerances, weight fluctuations, and more. Dr. Conway, a naturopathic doctor in Portland, earned his doctorate from the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Learn more about Dr. Andrew Conway