Another productive week on my end! I started the new job on Monday and am so far loving it; really great environment with excellent management. They have been very patient with me while my leg is broken and have allowed me to start every other day until the cast comes off. While my opposite hip starts to really hurt by the end of my shifts, I’m really glad that I have that day off in between shifts to recover! I am also starting to feel strong again climbing and have gotten used to doing it without my right leg. It’s amazing how much harder it is on your upper body when you’re missing a leg. A few more weeks of this definitely will help my power and strength by the time my cast comes off (3 more weeks to go!). I am very excited to have my independence back when it comes off, good timing for the spring climbing season as well :).
Here’s a picture of me a few weeks before the broken leg at a ‘boulder night’ at my old climbing gym. Photo credit to my friend Will (find more of his photography on his website http://www.flickr.com/photos/wkphotography/)
It’s becoming very clear that our health is not only controlled by our genes, but also our environment and, interestingly, the communities of organisms that inhabit us. The human body can be viewed as an ever changing ecosystem made up of approximately 100 trillion microbes that are collectively referred to as our microbiota. While these inhabitants are present throughout the body, they are concentrated in our gastrointestinal tract where they play a significant role in our overall health, nutritional uptake, behaviour, mental well-being and risk for disease. Varying species compositions have been demonstrated to be key contributors to just about every disease (e.g. allergy, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, inflammatory bowel syndrome) in developed countries, making our gut microbiota a key factor in health promotion and disease prevention. With our gut microbiota being such a pivotal component of our overall health, why are they so important and how do we achieve a healthy microbiota?
What is the significance of a healthy gut microbiota?
Bacteria begin colonizing the human body immediately after birth and play an important role in the early development of our gut, brain, endocrine and immune system. Their diversity is shaped by a number of factors including genetics, transmission of bacteria from our mother (e.g. natural vs caesarian birth), diet, infection, antibiotics, stress and exposure to unsterile environments throughout childhood. By adulthood, microbial cells exceed around 10-fold the number of human cells, with the majority found in the gastrointestinal tract. Our gut microbiota influence our health in a number of ways. They protects us from harmful pathogens, they determine how we absorb, store and metabolize fats, sugars, calories and other nutrients, they help control inflammation, they elevate our mental health and they help establish a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Our microbiota are also vital for the breakdown of fiber and complex carbohydrates (those that aren’t broken down in our small intestine) by using added enzymes that the human body can’t produce. The fermentation of these hardier carbohydrates provides energy for both us and our microbial residents, allowing healthy bacterial growth and the production of sugar and short-chain fatty acids, which have health promoting effects. For example, these fatty acids have been demonstrated to reduce cancer production (tumor necrosis factor), improve our immune response, reduce our body fat, stimulate a healthy colon, increase food intake control, and reduce inflammation.
How can we achieve a health microbiota?
1) Eat more fiber!
Fiber is the most important nutritional factor on the health of our microbiome and their ability to product short chain fatty acids. While westernized diets, typically high in processed foods, saturated fat and low in fiber, result in a microflora that produces less short chain fatty acids and typically promotes inflammation, high fiber and low fat diets have been demonstrated to do just the opposite. High fiber diets reduce inflammation, protect against cancer and feed our gut bacteria, allowing good bacteria to thrive. In fact, fiber consumption is associated with lower levels of e.coli, salmonella and listeria bacteria. Fiber can be easily incorporated into your diet simply by eating more plant based foods. Serve up some veggies, fruit or nuts for your next snack and you’ll be on your way to a healthier microbiota.
2) Watch your fat and calorie consumption!
Calorie and fat consumption also contributes to different compositions of bacteria. For example, high-fat calorie restricted diets produce less of the health promoting short chain fatty acids compared to high-carb, low fat diets. While overall fat intake is important, the type of fat can make a big difference on the health of your microbiota. Saturated fat, found in animal products, is associated with unhealthy microbiota, a lower production of short-chain fatty acids, as well as inflammation and higher risks for disease. Omega-3 fats on the other hand, rich in fish (DHA and EPA omega 3), aquatic plants (DHA and EPA omega-3) and land plants (ALA omega-3), promotes healthier bacteria compositions as well as reduces inflammation. Calorie consumption is another factor for healthy microbiotas. Too much calories, even just short term, will rapidly change our microbiome to be able to store energy and fat better as well as stimulate inflammation, contributing to the development of obesity and chronic disease. Reduce your intake of meat and fried foods and incorporate more fish and plant-based foods and try not to overeat frequently. The added fiber from more plants in your diet will also help you manage your appetite, making it easier to keep your calorie consumption in check.
3) Lower your stress load!
Under stress, the brain can influence our gut microbiota (via cortisol) to initiate an immune response (pain, inflammation, heat). While this immune response is normal, if it persists long term it will lead to chronic inflammation and heightened risks for infection and disease. Aside from this immune response, stress related cortisol production can have serious impacts on the diversity of our microbiome, further contributing to elevated inflammation and disease risks. Good management strategies include exercise, laughter and reducing your workload, all demonstrated to do leaps and bounds for your stress levels. Head on over to your local gym for some hard cardio- classes, relax at a new yoga studio or maybe try a new fun sport (rock climbing anyone?). Hang out with funny people or, if you’re short on those, catch a comedy at the show or check out a stand-up comedy club. By managing your stress, you can not only help alleviate all of the anxiety that comes with it, you can also support a healthy microbiota (also associated with better mental health… win win!).
4) Eat a probiotic rich diet!
A probiotic can be defined as a live microbe that helps promote a healthy gut microbiota; their benefits have been shown in both animal and human models. For example, the have been demonstrated to improve our ability to absorb nutrients, better gastro-intestinal health (e.g. symptom relief in patients with irritable bowel syndrome, Crohns, lactose intolerance), lower inflammation, reduce disease risks, elevate mental well-being (e.g. mood, anxiety) and improve overall health. The strains of probiotics with well-documented health promoting effects are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. Probiotics can be easily incorporated into your diet and are available in both vegan and animal based forms. Excellent sources of probiotics include fermented dairy products, including yogurt and kefir. Fermented soy (tempeh), fermented plant items (e.g. cabbage, ginger), kombucha tea and kimchi are great sources for vegans looking to up their probiotic intake. It’s important to note that different strains of probiotics have different clinical effects and that supplementation, while it has its place, comes with a risk of bactermia, fungemia and sepsis. Consult a health professional if you choose to supplement, especially if you have are immune-compromised or pregnant.
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