3 Simple Ways to Support Your Microbiome (Without Spending a Dime)
by Denise Cartwright, CRUDE Founder and CEO
‘Microbiome’ is a hot new wellness buzzword — and pro, pre, and post-biotic drinks, supplements, and personal care products are flooding the market, all promising to support your body’s healthy bacteria, or flora. Microbiome-focused health and wellness products fuel some of the fastest growing segments of the beauty and wellness industries, but are they worth the hype?
There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation surrounding the microbiome, but to our bodies, its completely intuitive. Our ancient symbiotic relationship with our flora has a lot to teach us about living in homeostasis, and the truth is — the best way to support your biome isn’t through expensive products, but by supporting the body’s own inherent wisdom and functions.
Let’s clear up a few microbiome misconceptions and discuss the top three ways to support your body’s flora, without spending any extra dough. But first, a quick background on the biome!
Our bodies have evolved over millennia with the help of microbes, whose existence we depend on for life. We’re literally made of bacteria — the human body has as many if not more bacterial cells than human cells, most of which are harmless, and many of which are helpful. Research is increasingly uncovering the wide ranging effects that these bacteria, our microbiomes, have on our bodily health — from gut and skin health to mental health and the prevention of allergies. Our resident flora, or microbiome, is responsible for helping develop and train our body’s immune system, teaching it to respond to our body’s needs over the course of our life.
Our modern lifestyles often don’t support these invisible helpers, and many of us are becoming more aware of the ways our diets, cleaning products, and personal care regimens are killing the bacteria we so rely on. The microbiome is complex, and science is only just uncovering its functions and importance. There’s a lot we still don’t know, but there are a few lifestyle changes we know make a big difference.
Tip 1 - Eat More Fiber
The first step people usually take on their journey toward a healthy microbiome is to buy a probiotic supplement or fermented foods like yogurt or kimchi. While there are certainly benefits to consuming live bacteria, one of the best ways to support your gut microbiome is actually to just increase your fiber intake. Microbes feed on fiber, so this is a great way to keep them happy and healthy, while supporting the gut lining. When microbes are starved of fiber, they start to feed on the protective mucus lining of the gut, which can trigger inflammation and disease. Even occasional fiber deprivation in mice leads to a compromised gut lining, which gets thinner and weaker the less fiber they eat.
A compromised gut barrier allows pathogenic diseases to more easily flourish in the gut, and has been associated with a broad range of diseases including celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, colon carcinoma, chronic liver disease, type 1 diabetes, and obesity. When your lining works effectively, a tight barrier forms and strictly controls what can leave and enter your bloodstream. If your gut lining is threatened, your immune system will respond to the threat with inflammation and change the composition of normal bacteria in the gut. Only 1 in 20 people in the United States consume the recommended amount of fiber, but a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains could be one of the most effective ways to promote bodily health, the gut lining, and your microbial balance.
But what about probiotics? Where a probiotic may contain a handful of live bacterial strains (most probiotic supplements contain bacteria from just two genera: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium) — an apple, for example, contains about 100 million bacteria—a more diverse range than any dietary supplement. Furthermore, ‘probiotic’ products often don’t actually contain live bacteria, or the bacteria can’t survive your stomach’s digestive fluids. Ultimately, probiotics often have little or negative effects either because they don’t effectively populate the gut bacteria or they overpopulate certain species, forcing out other beneficial strains. The research on probiotics is very new and often conflicting. Fresh produce, on the other hand, has been time tested to help the body’s flora flourish. It usually has both prebiotic and probiotic qualities, and you can get it right at your local farmers market or grocery store for a fraction of the cost of a supplement.
“The supplement sellers won't tell you this but fresh fruits and vegetables are loaded with diverse bacteria, and fiber to feed them, and that's the surest way to keep the microbiome diverse/healthy.” -James Hamblin, MD
“If you are truly interested in diversifying your gut microbiome and increasing the abundance of health-promoting species, the research strongly supports that high-fiber diets that contain very diverse types of plant-based foods are a much more effective approach,” -Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN
Tip 2 - Stop Over-Cleansing Your Skin
Just like your gut, your skin has a microbiome. The skin is teeming with living bacteria and fungi that work directly with your immune system to keep your skin and body healthy and in homeostasis — yet most of us wash off these crucial microbes, along with our skin’s natural moisture barrier, with a soap or detergent-based cleanser on a daily basis. Like the gut lining, the skin’s natural moisture barrier is intrinsically tied to the health of the skin and its microbiome. This naturally produced, oily shield protects the body from water loss and pathogenic bacteria, and holds essential moisture in the skin. So why do we strip this essential barrier and our flora from our skin with suds?
The daily, head-to-toe soap bath only goes back about a century, and was popularized through some of the first ever mass marketing campaigns and 'soap operas'. Before that, humans relied primarily on natural ingredients like water, oil, and clay to cleanse their skin. It's important to wash your hands with soap, but chronic use elsewhere on the body is unnecessary and harmful to the skin’s ecosystems. Sudsing, bacteria-killing, oil-stripping cleansers like soap and detergent could be increasing rates of inflammatory skin diseases like acne and eczema, which are fast on the rise.
Tip 3 - Go Outside
A diverse microbiome is a resilient one — greater diversity of microorganisms is largely correlated with overall health and well-being. One of the best ways to expose yourself to a diverse array of bacteria is to get out of the house. Exposure to soil and a variety of natural environments can increase bacterial diversity and improve the immune system. People who live in urban environments with less biodiversity have a lower diversity of microbes, but access to more biodiverse areas such as green spaces and parks shows major biome benefits.
This is especially important for children — the diversity of microbes we’re exposed to as kids effects our health long term. Early life exposure to microbial diversity may play a role in cognitive development as well as immune function — for example, children who grow up on farms have a lower risk of asthma, and bacterial diversity present in a child’s house dust during the first months of life may reduce the risk of developing hyperactivity and inattention during childhood.
Common dirt bacteria have been shown to have immunity boosting and antidepressant effects, and some microbes act as natural cleansers and even natural sunscreens on the skin. A recent study of the gut microbiome of baboons showed that soil is the most dominant predictor for shaping their gut microbiota, with a 15 times stronger effect than genetics. The health-supporting qualities of gardening and ‘forest bathing’ go way beyond their meditative benefits.
Rapidly declining biodiversity may be a contributing factor to the rapidly increasing prevalence of allergies and other chronic inflammatory diseases among urban populations worldwide. Time spent in nature is crucial, and the ‘rewilding’ of our urban areas could bring these incredible benefits to the communities who need them most.
Don’t let the hype confuse or overwhelm you, caring for your nature is in your DNA. While industry solutions are often complicated, expensive, and interfere with your body’s natural state — nature and your own body provide most of what you need to create the foundations of health for your gut, skin, and biome. And thankfully, in an industry full of false claims and misinformation, there’s finally a standard for biome-friendliness in personal care, thanks to the scientists at MyMicrobiome. We’ll likely see more standards and regulations put in place in the next decades as we continue to learn more about what the microbiome does and doesn’t do. In the meantime, look for the MyMicrobiome seal, and focus on letting your nature thrive rather than trying to outsmart your brilliant body.
About the Author
Denise Cartwright is the Founder and CEO of CRUDE, and a Master Esthetician with 12+ years of experience. A Utah native, she's passionate about the natural world, plant medicine, and wellness. Check her out on Instagram @dkcartwright.