Why we should love “germs”….even in a pandemic

It might sound ridiculous when we have spent months wearing face masks and slathering alcohol gel on our skin, to say that germs might actually be beneficial for our health but that is exactly what I’m saying – go with me on this.

The external and internal surfaces of our bodies are teaming with trillions of the blighters…but don’t worry.- it’s a good thing! The exact numbers and combination of bacteria, viruses and fungi we kindly (albeit unwittingly) accommodate are as unique to each of us as our fingerprints. Referred to in medicine as commensal microorganisms, these microscopic cling-ons perform important functions our own cells can’t; fight off harmful bugs that might cause infection and produce hormones which can influence our health, mood and behaviour.

What’s so special about gut bugs?

The microbial flora in our guts, often referred to as the microbiome, is increasingly being considered as an organ in its own right. In recent years, scientific research has revealed that our gastrointestinal tract, far from being merely a place where food and water is absorbed, has many other talents. It acts as a kind of sensory organ, detecting information about our environment via what we put into our mouths and priming our immune systems to help it fight infections and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

How do the bugs get there?

Babies born naturally benefit from the exposure to the organisms in their mother’s birth canal; they take up residence on the newborn’s skin and gut lining. Breast-feeding nourishes those in the gut and this early healthy microbiome supports the infant’s immune system in those first vulnerable months of life and reduces the long term risk of chronic disorders such as asthma and obesity, compared with babies born by Caesarean section, whose gut bacteria differ significantly. But however we came into the world, we can influence our gut microbiome for better or worse with our diet and lifestyle choices. Think of your gut and skin like a garden, needing to be fed, watered and nurtured to encourage a favourable and diverse range of flora.

My 10 top tips to help cultivate health-friendly bugs

1) Fibre is your friend. Good gut bacteria thrive on fibre and produce beneficial hormones in response. Leafy vegetables and pulses are packed with fibre and other nutrients; eating chickpeas, for example leads to the production of ‘happy hormone’ serotonin. Pass me that hummus!

2)   Curb your sweet tooth. Sugar and highly processed carbs are quickly absorbed in the first part of the gut leaving the lower bowel without the fibre your microbiome needs. Research has shown a higher prevalence of ‘bad’ gut bugs in people with high sugar diets. These bad boys produce hormones which create cravings for more of the same, leading to weight gain and its associated health risks.

3) Don’t graze. Periods of fasting promote diversity of micro-organisms in the gut and increase the numbers of ‘good’ bacteria. Constant grazing has the opposite effect so worth considering confining your meals to a window of 8-12 hours each day.

4) Get adventurous in the kitchen! The more diverse our diets, the more diversity in our guts.

Western civilisations have less gut flora diversity than those eating more traditional diets. Developed societies tend to eat the same foods, year-round, rather than eating what’s in season, so we paradoxically restrict our diets, despite having unlimited access to an endless variety of different foods.

5) Get some culture. Cuisines from all over the world feature fermented foods for good reason; they are a source of friendly bacteria and can easily be added to your diet. Examples include sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha and good old live yoghurt. If these don’t float your boat, consider taking a probiotic supplement, available online and from supermarkets or health food stores. They contain a range of live beneficial bacteria. They can also help to reseed the gut with good guys following a course of antibiotics, which can decimate the microbiome, allowing the bad guys to take up residence.

6) Feed your garden. Prebiotics are foods rich in types of fibre which promote cultivation of good gut bugs. Examples include onions, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichoke and chicory. Try to incorporate as many as possible into your 5-a-day habit.

7) Go organic. Pesticides are not only harmful for our environment by interrupting the two-way natural dynamic between plants and the soil; they also kill the good bacteria on the plant AND in our guts. Antibiotics given routinely to animals reared for meat and milk also find their way into our guts with adverse effects on our microbiomes.

8) Don’t sleepwalk into a poor diet! Getting less than 7 hours sleep adversely affects our gut bug profile. This is one of the mechanisms thought to be responsible for increased appetite in sleep deprivation and leads to craving unhealthy and calorie dense foods.

9) Drink responsibly. Alcohol irritates the gut lining and predisposes to a poorer gut flora profile.

10) Love the skin you’re in. Let’s not forget our skin bugs. Keep your skin healthy and glowing by avoiding harsh detergents (e.g. those containing sulphates) and alcohol gels; gentle soap or emollient cleanses effectively and will not damage the acid mantle which promotes a healthy skin commensal profile and avoid bathing more than once daily.

Our commensal micro-organisms are an important part of us – we need them to survive. If we nourish them, they can help us live healthy, happy lives; so let’s treat them as friends and try to give them what they need – they will repay us in kind.

Love, Julia x

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