In the natural health world, we often hear that we should be eating a diet that feeds our microbiome to increase gut diversity and promote health and wellness. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and for many people, this method causes inflammation and worsens illness.
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In this week’s podcast, we saw Dr. Ruscio’s presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium discussing the benefits and pitfalls of trying to eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors to support a healthy microbiome.
Our microbiome consists of bacteria, fungus, protozoa, archaea, and viruses that coat our skin, line our GI tract, and coexist in our body to provide a number of health benefits for us.
In modern-day society, we are deficient in dirt, bugs, and animal exposure, and we overuse antibiotics. This is creating imbalanced microbiotas and immune systems, leading to a host of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
The ancestral perspective is that since we’re no longer living like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we’ve created an imbalance in our microbiome and immune system. We often hear the statement that our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have autoimmune or inflammatory conditions. They didn’t deal with chronic disease like we do today.
Many suggest the solution to this is to boost microbiota diversity by eating a lot of fiber and prebiotics. Perhaps we could test our microbiota and GI tract to see where we’re deficient. It’s also suggested that we should be less hygienic and spend more time in nature with exposure to dirt and animals.
While these ideas seem great in theory, there are some problems with this solution. For some people, too much fiber and prebiotics will exacerbate symptoms and make them feel worse.
It’s also been shown that children who experience periodic exposure to animals may experience increased allergies. This suggests that periodic exposure may not be enough to replicate the ancestral environment.
The truth is that we have a limited development window for the immune system. After that, the immune system is much less adaptable to change. Therefore, someone with a “Western immune system” may not do well with a hunter-gatherer diet or lifestyle if they decide to switch at around 30 years of age (and for some people, even earlier.)
Those with chronic GI issues tend to do very poorly on a high-fiber, high-prebiotic diet. Too much fiber and prebiotics often make symptoms and inflammation worse because we’re feeding a system that has a difficult time regulating itself. This can be seen in IBS and IBD. In this case, a low-fiber, low-fermentation diet is much more effective at reducing symptoms.
Antibiotic use can cause an increase in allergic and autoimmune disease when administered early in life. However, they induce remission in those with IBD and help greatly with IBS in adults.
Studies have shown the earlier antibiotics are administered in babies and kids, the greater the chance they’ll suffer from allergic or autoimmune diseases. The inverse is true with probiotics and prebiotics. The earlier probiotics are administered in babies, the greater the protective effect they have on the immune system.
What Is a Healthy Hunter-Gatherer Diet?
Many practitioners and health experts tend to focus on a biased sample of an African-style hunter-gatherer diet that consists of high carbohydrates and high fiber. However, this is a very small portion of hunter-gatherers worldwide.
We know that hunter-gatherers eat differently depending on what part of the world they live in. Populations closer to the equator tend to eat higher carbohydrate and fiber and less protein and fat, while populations further from the equator consume high quantities of fat and protein and less carbohydrate.
In fact, the literature confirms that most hunter-gatherer populations (73%) worldwide derive the majority of their calories from animal foods. In other words, most hunter-gatherers do not eat a high-carb, high-fiber diet.
Rather than focusing on the objective of eating to feed our microbiota, which often increases symptoms in those with IBS and IBD, we need to focus on eating to reduce symptoms, reduce inflammation, and control blood sugar. This will help create a healthy environment, which will allow healthy microbiota to flourish.
How Do We Assess If We Have a Problem in the Gut?
Testing our microbiota is not the solution. Microbiota assays are academic tests; they are not clinical. We know that our microbiota fluctuates monthly and even daily, so we don’t really get an accurate picture. Additionally, we don’t know what a healthy microbiota looks like. Different bacteria affect different people in different ways.
We’re also missing a large part of the microbiome in these assays. The tests look only at the colon and not the small intestine, which is where we absorb our nutrients and house the largest density of our immune cells.
Finally, we don’t know how to treat the findings. When we do one of these tests, we don’t know really what to do with the results. There are no protocols or guidelines established. At best, these tests are a potential screening tool for IBD, but we’re not even there yet.
Gut Testing That Is Clinically Relevant
Tests that evaluate and diagnose dysbiosis such as SIBO, candida, and H. Pylori are absolutely helpful, as are tests for pathogens like blasto or amoebas, testing for conditions like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s, and screening for colorectal cancer.
How Do We Create a Healthy Environment for a Healthy Microbiota?
The key to a healthy microbiome is to eat to reduce inflammation, control blood sugar, and reduce symptoms.
Pathogenic bacteria thrive in an inflammatory environment. When we eat in a way that reduces inflammation, we will decrease the amount of opportunistic bacteria.
We can optimize our gut environment through healthy diet and lifestyle, gut support like HCL, enzymes, probiotics, and maybe some fiber. It may also be helpful to reset our microbiota using interventions such as antibiotics, antimicrobials, and liquid diets. Then gradually increase dietary boundaries and wean off support. Finally, consider adding in fiber, prebiotics, and resistant starch to a level of tolerability.
There are two general camps when it comes to diet:
- Higher carbohydrate, fiber, and fermentable foods. Some people do better on this type of diet, which may include a higher-carb Paleo diet, Mediterranean diet, or healthy vegetarian diet. This certainly works better than an unhealthy Standard American Diet.
- Lower-carb, low-fiber, and low-fermentable foods. These diets are shown to work better than higher-carb and higher-fiber diets. Examples include low-FODMAP and moderate-to-low-carb Paleo diets. This eating style is shown to work better for metabolic conditions like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. They’re also shown to work better for GI conditions like IBD, IBS, GERD/reflux.
Should We All Eat Low Carb?
You should always eat to reduce symptoms and inflammation, which may or may not be lower carb. You may start with Paleo and find that helps, but not completely. Then you may get a little more restrictive with the types and amounts of carbs you eat. You may try autoimmune Paleo, low-FODMAP, or low-FODMAP combined with the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. We find these types of diets to work very well for those with GI conditions.
This evidence goes against the belief that a high-fiber, high-prebiotic diet is the best for the microbiota. Ultimately, if someone has a healthy ecosystem, then they may do well with more fiber and prebiotics. However, if the ecosystem is imbalanced and dysfunctional, then feeding it may just make it worse.
Those with the most digestive imbalances and symptoms are most likely to do the worst on a high-fiber, high-prebiotic protocol.
Where Do You Start?
Consider starting with a lower-carb, lower-FODMAP diet and then working toward the broadest diet you can tolerate. The goal is to experiment and be okay and comfortable with where you end up.
In addition to diet, you can create a healthy environment for a healthy microbiota with lifestyle changes. Below are a few suggestions based on clinical data.
- Diverse Natural Environment—Living near diverse plant life increases the diversity of the skin microbiota and correlates with reduced skin conditions in children.
- Dishwashing—Using a sponge rather than dishwashing increases microbiota and decreases allergy in children.
- Nature—Walking in forests increases vigor and well-being and decreases anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
- Blue Zones and Green Zones—Those living near blue zones or green zones have a lower mortality rate.
- Antibiotics—The younger an infant/child, the more cautious we should be with antibiotics. The older you get, the less it matters (within reason). This is not saying antibiotics are okay, but it’s not saying they’re completely bad either.
- Stress Management—Stress causes reductions in healthy strains of bacteria.
- Sleep—Good sleep quality is critical. Circadian rhythm disruptions lead to microbiota changes that may lead to weight gain.
- Exercise—The appropriate amount of exercise may increase microbiota diversity.
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