Get to Know Your Gut this Microbiome Day

Microbiome Day is recognized on June 27 as a day to celebrate the importance of microbes for our health, animal health, and the health of the planet! To mark this day, we interviewed our Scientific Advisory Board Member, Harry Oken, M.D. to better understand microbes, gut health, and ways we can take care of ourselves as we age.

Question: First, what is the microbiome and why should we care?

Dr. Oken: The microbiome is the genetic material of all the microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that live on and/or inside the human body. It is essential for our development and immunity. In fact, we have many microbiomes, for instance, the skin, vaginal, and the gut to name a few.

First, let me start by saying that everyone has their own unique signature of a microbiome. Think of it like a fingerprint. And, building on each is an important concept as no two microbiomes are alike. There is ongoing prolific scientific data that supports aberrations in the microbiome and the relationships to a variety of disease states. For our discussion today, I’m specifically focusing on the gut microbiome and ways to support it.

Question: What is the impact on microbiome health as it relates to America’s eating habits?

Dr. Oken: Americans’ eating habits as we know are subpar. The primary health issue most people experience is being overweight, and in the United States, nearly 90% of adult males have an abdominal girth that is greater than half their height. This single factor increases the risk for the most common illnesses that impact cardiovascular, sleep, joint, digestive health, and much more.

Another big issue I see regularly is that people are largely deficient in getting adequate fiber in their diet. Adequate fiber nourishes good bacteria, which allows it to produce immunomodulatory substances that decrease inflammation throughout the body. Additionally, good bacteria help promote a healthy gut environment, or microbiome, where 70% of our immune health resides. So, increased fiber means decreased inflammation and potential sick days!

Unfortunately, the average American only gets 15-20g of fiber per day when I recommend 30-40g. To make sure enough fiber is in getting into the diet, switch from white bread to whole wheat or white rice to brown rice. Also, strive for 5-7 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. These simple changes can increase fiber intake over time, which can change the way your body feels and functions. Other sources of fiber are beans, nuts, and bran cereal.

Question: Do you suggest patients adjust their diet and/or add supplements to support digestive health?

Dr. Oken: This is a regular discussion with every patient every year concerning their digestive health and the use of dietary supplements. I find most patients feel their digestive function seems to be better by taking a probiotic along with a fiber-rich and largely plant-based diet. Probiotics, especially those that use a blend of Lactobacillus acidophilus LA-5® and Bifidobacterium animalis BB-12®, promote a healthy digestive system along with the right prebiotic substrate.

Colostrum, a newer supplement that can be found in capsules, powder, and chewables, also has an anti-inflammatory function and can be particularly helpful for people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and sometimes inflammatory bowel disease.  In addition, colostrum has protective qualities, which allow it to be paired with patients who are taking anti-inflammatories like aspirin. In a clinical trial, researchers found cow colostrum was effective in completely blocking the NSAID-induced increase in intestinal permeability and they suggest colostrum may be a novel approach to the prevention of NSAID-induced gastrointestinal damage.

Question: How about antibiotic use? As we age, we tend to take more medications. Can a probiotic be used when taking antibiotics and is it recommended?

Dr. Oken: I think anyone who is taking antibiotics for greater than five days benefits from being on a probiotic. It seems to decrease the risk for antibiotic-related changes in the microbiome as well as issues directly related to antibiotics such as diarrhea. I recommended it routinely because it nourishes and replenishes our microbiome with good bacteria during this time.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Oken!

Harry Oken, M.D., practicing internist in Columbia, Maryland, scientific advisory board member for PanTheryx, an integrative digestive and immune health company, and author of BOOM! Boost Our Own Metabolism: A Guide to a Better Life.

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