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Have you eaten?

Have you eaten?

The greeting, “Have you eaten”, is as Malaysian as it gets. We love our food, and we are not afraid to show it.

We are proud of the many different types of cuisine that is available in this country, and we partake as often as we can, at all times of the day, and night, and into the wee hours of the morning.

Unfortunately, there is often a price to pay for such an indulgence. And it does not just come in the form of a pot belly.

Good gut health is a crucial part of overall health and well-being. If digestive problems persist, and recur frequently, or occur for no discernible reason, then they should be treated as an indicator of a more serious problem.

One of the worst case scenarios would be colorectal cancer (CRC). In 2016, CRC in Malaysia was calculated with a lifetime risk 1 in 56 for men, and 1 in 74 for women. It is the most common cancer among men and the second most common cancer among women.

Data from the Malaysian National Cancer Registry (MNCR) released in 2018 showed that two in five people were diagnosed at advanced stages (Stages III & IV).

The five-year survival rate for CRC patients was recorded at 48% in a recent study. Thus, early screening is critical in order to detect CRC as quickly as possible.

Screening is also the only sure method of detecting CRC as its symptoms are very general and can also be attributed to other causes, thus making it difficult to pinpoint whether or not colorectal cancer is the culprit.


It is imperative that we take better care of our gut health immediately, rather than wait for a more serious symptom to develop.

So, continue enjoying our amazing Malaysian cuisine, but keep a very close eye on digestive health at the same time. After all, prevention is infinitely better than cure.

● Look out for the next article which focuses on digestive health problems that we tend to take lightly.

This article is courtesy of Digestive Health Malaysia and Vitagen Healthy Digestion Programme, in conjunction with their World Digestive Health Day 2019 awareness campaign. Datuk Dr Muhammad Radzi Abu Hassan is a Consultant Physician and Gastroenterologist and Hepatology. He is also the Chairman of Digestive Health Malaysia (DHM) society. He is not associated with, and does not endorse any brand or product. For more information, contact 03-5632 3301.
Maintaining beneficial bacteria to protect your gut

Maintaining beneficial bacteria to protect your gut

Having good gut health is crucial for good overall health. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, even went as far as saying that all diseases begin in the gut.

In fact, the gut is the largest immune organ in our body.

Common problems related with the digestive system include inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diarrhoea, constipation and bloating.

While common digestive problems are seldom fatal, your quality of life can be badly affected if they occur frequently. In the long run, they may severely impact your overall health.

Studies show that the balance of gut microbiota is vital in maintaining your gut and overall health.

There are various ways to control the balance of gut microbiota and improve gut health, especially through a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Thus, it is important that you make the time to take care of your gut health.

Balancing bacteria

One of the key functions of the gut is to digest food and extract the nutrients that our body needs.

It also functions as part of our body’s immune system, forming up to 80% of our body’s defences against illnesses.

The intestines are home to immune “sensors” called Peyer’s patches, which play a key role in identifying harmful pathogens in our gut and triggering our body’s immune response against them, as the gut is the first point of entry to our body.

An often overlooked, yet critically important factor in determining good gut health is the gut microbiota, which is the collection of microorganisms in our gut.

Gut microbiota consists of the entire population of microorganisms living in our digestive system, comprising both “good” and “bad” bacteria.

Good gut health can be maintained when the balance of bacteria is kept at about 85% good bacteria to 15% bad bacteria.

However, there are times when the balance of the gut microbiota is upset.

Dysbiosis is the term used to describe this situation, which often leads to an uncontrolled increase in the number of bad bacteria.

It can be caused by medication, chemicals/toxins in our surroundings, sudden dietary changes, excessive alcohol consumption or high levels of stress.

Symptoms may vary in intensity and include bad breath, upset stomach, constipation, bloating and diarrhoea.

Simple tips

To maintain good gut health, it is important that you practise a healthy lifestyle. Here are some tips to take care of your gut health:

• Practise balance, moderation and variety in your daily diet

The basics of healthy eating can be summed up by the principles of balance, moderation and variety (BMV), which are critical for a healthy lifestyle.

BMV means that one’s daily diet should be balanced to meet all your nutritional needs.

Include foods from all five food groups in the Malaysian Food Pyramid, served in moderate portions in accordance with the recommended number of servings per food group, and comprising a variety of foods from each food group.

• Include foods rich in fibre and prebiotics

The importance of dietary fibre cannot be overstated.

Non-digestible dietary fibre helps to regulate bowel movement and gives the correct consistency and bulk to stool.

Certain dietary fibres are a source of prebiotics, which serve as food for the bacteria in the gut.

Good sources for dietary fibre include legumes, whole grains and wholegrain products, vegetables and fruits, while prebiotic-rich foods include garlic, onion, asparagus and bananas.

Fructo-oligosaccharides, inulin and oligosaccharides are also excellent examples of prebiotics that are added to food products.

• Consume probiotic-rich foods

Another way to minimise the risk of dysbiosis and improve your gut health is by eating foods containing probiotics or “good” bacteria, as these help you to maintain a healthy gut microbiota balance.

They can also provide other health benefits, such as improving gastrointestinal disorders like IBS, diarrhoea and constipation, and enhancing your immunity.

Foods that are rich in probiotics include cultured milk and fermented milk products with probiotic cultures.

Some traditional home-prepared fermented foods can also be potential sources of beneficial bacteria, such as tapai, homemade yoghurt (tairu), tempeh and kimchi.

• Drink plenty of water

Drink at least eight glasses of plain water daily. Sufficient fluids are needed to prevent constipation and aid in food digestion.

Fibre pulls water into the colon to create softer and bulkier stools, allowing them to pass through more easily.

 Be active

Maintaining a physically active lifestyle and a healthy body weight allows your gut to function under optimal working conditions.

Without you knowing it, your gut and your immune system are actively communicating with each other.

A balanced gut microbiota is essential for gut health, which in turn can have an important impact on your overall health.

Take the above simple steps to take care of your gut every day. Remember: Keep your gut happy, keep yourself healthy!

Ng Kar Foo and Lee Zheng Yii are with the Malaysian Dietitians’ Association (MDA). This article is contributed by Nutrition Month Malaysia 2019, an annual community nutrition education initiative jointly organised by the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, MDA and the Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity.
The bacteria that help our gut stay healthy

The bacteria that help our gut stay healthy

The adage “You are what you eat” is closer to the truth than you might think.

Gut health is important to your overall well-being. In fact, it can be said that your gut is your second brain.

Your gut health is closely connected to your digestive, immune, endocrine, circulatory and central nervous systems, and it can affect both your physical and mental health.

One major factor that determines your gut health is the gut microbiota, which is the diverse population of microorganisms that can be found in your intestine.

It is vital to keep the gut microbiota in balance.

Imbalance of the gut microbiota happens when the population, diversity and richness of good and bad bacteria in your gut deviate from the normal ratio, causing disruption and damage to the mucosal layer of your gastrointestinal tract.

This will negatively affect your gut health, and consequently, your mind and body.

To keep your gut healthy, it is necessary to have a healthy lifestyle and consume a well-balanced, moderate and varied diet.

Also, your gut health can be maintained by practising good habits like regular exercise and enough sleep, and avoiding bad habits like drinking excessive alcohol and overuse of antibiotics.

Apart from that, there are also certain foods that can help to balance the ratio of good and bad gut microbiota, such as probiotics, prebiotics and fibre.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that when consumed can have a certain health benefit to the host.

They can be consumed in the form of health supplements, prescribed medicinal products or natural food products, like yoghurt and kimchi.

When your gut microbiota population is not in balance – for example, after an episode of diarrhoea and after treatment with antibiotics – probiotics can be consumed to restore the normal ratio of good and bad microbiota in your gut.

There are many different species of gut microbiota that can be classified as probiotics, consisting of bacteria and yeasts.

In fact, your body contains trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi, and about 400 different types of probiotic bacteria. Some well-known species of probiotics are described below.


Lactobacillus is the largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestines. There are more than 50 species of lactobacilli, such as L. acidophilus, L. rhamnosus GG and L. bulgaricus.

It can be found naturally in the digestive, urinary and genital systems, and also in natural foods and supplements.

Lactobacillus can potentially be used to prevent or treat acute diarrhoea (also termed acute gastroenteritis), which is most commonly due to viral infection; irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); urinary tract infections (UTIs); vaginal yeast infections; the common cold; skin disorders and viral respiratory infections in children; as well as to reduce lactose intolerance and cholesterol levels.

Bifidobacterium is comprised of approximately 30 different species, such as B. bifidum, B. lactis, and B. longum.

It is one of the first bacterial species to grow in babies’ intestines, especially in breastfed infants, and can help digest breast milk.

Breastfeeding can help develop babies’ gut microbiota, and children who are breastfed for at least six months are found to have more Bifidobacteria than those who are bottle-fed.

Bifidobacterium, similar to Lactobacillus, is also used to help prevent or treat various gut conditions, infections and skin problems.

Streptococcus thermophilus, which can be found in our colon, produces a large quantity of lactase that can break down lactose in milk to lactic acid, and is widely utilised in the production of yoghurt and cheese.

Other species of the same Streptococcus genus, like S. pneumoniae, may cause disease, but S. thermophilus has been proven to be safe as a probiotic.

Its optimal growth temperature is in a range that is suitable for our gut microbiota. It can also improve digestion, enhance immunity and help with other health problems.

Saccharomyces boulardii is different from the previously-mentioned probiotics.

S. boulardii is a close relative of S. cerevisiae, also known as baker’s yeast. However, it has a higher optimal growth temperature at 37°C and better survival at acidic pH, enabling it to reach the colon in an active state. It also does not need refrigeration.

As S. boulardii is a yeast species, it is not affected by antibiotics, which only target bacteria. Thus, it is suitable for restoring gut microbiota balance after treatment with antibiotics.

That is why it is especially useful for treating acute diarrhoeal illness and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea.

S. boulardii may be found in fermented food, such as kefir or kombucha, which has a combination of yeast and bacterial probiotics.

S. boulardii was “found” in the early 1920s by a French microbiologist, Henry Boulard, when he observed that people in Indochina who drank a special concoction made from the skin of lychee and mangosteen did not develop diarrhoea and other symptoms of cholera during an outbreak.

This strain was named after him upon his discovery and is commonly sold as an anti-diarrhoeal medication.

Probiotics are an important part of our diet to keep the gut healthy. Other than the food mentioned above, we can also get our probiotics from traditional fermented foods like raw tempeh and tapai.

Probiotics can also be used to prevent or reduce the symptoms of various gut disorders such as constipation, diarrhoea, acute diarrhoeal illness and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea, as well as potentially in many other conditions.

However, each probiotic strain is unique, whereby specific strains are more effective in treating certain conditions, just as how an individual is identified by fingerprints.

It is essential to consult your doctor to find the most suitable probiotic for your needs.

Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi Raja Ali is a consultant physician and gastroenterologist. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. For further information, visit www.mypositiveparenting.org or e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
Probiotics improve immunity

Probiotics improve immunity

A STUDY by Pusat Perubatan Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (PPUKM) has revealed that consumption of cultured milk drinks containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus paracasei improves our immunity and overall digestive health.

The one-and-a-half year research is the first of its kind conducted in Malaysia, using Malaysian research subjects.

It was spearheaded by PPUKM, and the research team was led by Principle Investigator and Consultant Physician and Gastroenterologist, Associate Professor Dr Raja Affendi Raja Ali.

Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi shared: “The results of this study clearly prove that these two probiotic strains also significantly enhance immune system homeostasis, meaning that the immune system’s ability to sustain a favourable balance is maintained.”

Three pro-inflammatory markers that relate to chronic inflammatory diseases or even cancers, namely tumour necrosis factor-alpha, Interleukin 6, and Interleukin 8, were examined in detail among the healthy subjects and patients with irritable bowel syndrome.

The researchers found significant reductions in all three markers among the majority of the research subjects.

The research determined that probiotics provided positive benefits to digestive health:

• 96% of research subjects reported improvements in constipation symptoms,

• 45% of research subjects spent less than 10 minutes in the toilet,

• 36% of research subjects experienced less straining when going to toilet,

• 31% of research subjects reported softer stools,

In addition, the researchers found that food digestion time was faster by 33% for those who took the probiotics (normal digestion takes 20-45 hours; in the subjects, it was 5-15 hours).

Digestive health is a serious issue

The results were announced at the launch of the World Digestive Health Day (WDHD 2018) celebrations on June 30 at Sunway Velocity Mall.

On hand to officiate the launch was Deputy Director General of Health (Public Health), Ministry of Health Malaysia, Datuk Dr Hj Azman Bin Hj Abu Bakar. During his opening speech, he acknowledged the significance of the study’s results when taking into account the dire state of the digestive health of many Malaysians.

Dr Hj. Azman said: “The state of the rakyat’s digestive health is apparent when looking at the Health Facts 2017 released by the Ministry of Health. It was revealed that diseases of the digestive system were the fourth principal cause of hospitalisation in private hospitals, the seventh principal cause of hospitalisation in MOH hospitals, and the sixth principal cause of death recorded in both MOH and private hospitals.”

He went on to add that many factors contributed to this, such as colorectal cancer and obesity. “Both the private and government sectors must work together actively in order to successfully tackle this problem. Persistent and focused efforts are necessary if we are to succeed in lowering the incidence of digestive diseases in the future,” he said.

He also praised the efforts of the research team in finding ways to delve deeper into the factors that affect the digestive health of Malaysians and their attempts of finding ways to positively affect it.

Public education and empowerment

This year marks the 10th consecutive year that WDHD has been organised by the VITAGEN Healthy Digestion Programme (VHDP). VHDP worked closely with Digestive Health Malaysia Society (DHM) for the event.

DHM is an expert-driven, digestive health body that seeks to empower all Malaysians to manage their digestive health with confidence and optimism, thereby reducing the prevalence of digestive health diseases.

The other expert bodies that collaborated in the WDHD celebrations were Nutrition Month Malaysia, Positive Parenting Programme, and the National Cancer Council.

Datuk Dr Muhammad Radzi Abu Hassan, Chairman of DHM, explained: “It is a lamentable fact that many people ignore their digestive health. Problems with our digestive health can occur at any time in our life, and anyone who suffers from chronically poor digestive health will tell you that their condition would interfere with one’s quality of life.

“It is our hope that the results of this study is useful in creating greater synergy among the government, academia, industry and the community, thus producing solutions to the poor digestive health that many Malaysians currently face.”

He went on to add that taking simple preventive steps can make a big difference and that by taking charge of our digestive health, it is possible to improve our digestive and overall health, well-being and happiness.

Poh Eng Lip, General Manager of VITAGEN, said: “Our corporate vision has always been about encouraging and promoting optimal digestive health amongst the Malaysian public through community education.

“Because of this, we have been, and will continue to be, supportive of programmes that aim to improve the quality of life of our community.”

The results of the study were also presented by Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi and his research team at a gastroenterology meeting at the International Digestive Disease Forum in Hong Kong earlier this month.

Understanding the Microbiome: How Gut Health Affects Your Health, Weight Loss, and Mood

Understanding the Microbiome: How Gut Health Affects Your Health, Weight Loss, and Mood

Everything we know about diet and weight loss is being challenged by bacteria. Not some foreign infection, but — rather — the little bugs that live within your body. And the most promising part of it all: understanding how foods impact your gut could be the best weight loss trick you’ve ever tried.

Take one small example: do you find that you’re constantly craving sweets or not satisfied after you eat? It could be the doing of your microbiome — the army of microorganisms living inside of your digestive tract. These microscopic bugs fight to control your thoughts from a “second brain” located in your gut. And we’re not talking about urges caused by feeling hangry.

Diving into the (still young) research and you start to see interesting patterns, such as:

How is all of this possible? There are 10 times more bacteria living in your digestive tract than there are cells in your entire body.

There are 10 times more bacteria living within your digestive tract than there are cells in your entire body.

As a result, your body makes alliances and enjoys a symbiotic (that’s science-talk for “win-win”) relationship with the majority of the organisms within your microbiome. Gut bacteria aid in digestion and even produce an important nutrient, Vitamin K2 (think cardiovascular and bone health).

But not all of those bugs are so eager to be friends. There is such a thing as “bad” gut bacteria too. Even the “good” ones can turn on you and become harmful when things like the use of antibiotics, illness, stress, bad dietary habits, or other lifestyle factors shake up your digestive ecosystem. (Yup, basically living life is all it takes.) That’s when things can get rough, and why one of the biggest areas of research is trying to understand the relationship between your microbiome and medical issues such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), obesity, and maybe even cancer.

So how do you make sense of all the microbiome buzz? We know it’s important, but there’s a lot of misinformation swirling around and far too many claims that we can’t yet support (time will tell because we need more reseearch). While “solutions” like probiotics may be helpful for some — and are definitely good, in general — there are many other accessible (and less expensive) things you can do to keep your microbiome healthy.

Microbiome 101: Simplifying the Science

We’ll be honest, anything about gut health can become a little too confusing, so it’s best to think in big picture terms: what it is, why it matters, and what you can do about it.

Your microbiome is the collection of all the microbes and microorganisms that populate your body.

There are unique groups of microorganisms living in many different regions of your body—your skin, mouth and digestive system, to name a few. Your gut microbiome (the “microbiota”) is home to millions of unique bacteria. Experts believe that having a wide spectrum of different bacteria in your GI tract is beneficial to your health (researchers are now trying to understand exactly what role they play in everything from your immune function, to macronutrient metabolism and absorption, and even your mood).

Diversity is a good thing. And research suggestions that having a less diverse gut bacteria might be linked to health issues like irritable bowel disease, cancer and obesity. While many questions about how and why still exist, there’s enough of a relationship that scientists are trying to figure out how you can best take care of your gut bacteria.

A Healthier Microbiome: Probiotics and Prebiotics

Probiotics are helpful bacteria in your gut. Think of them as adding backup troops when your frontline is a little weak. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut, and in drinks like kefir and kombucha. The beneficial bacteria from probiotics provide numerous health benefits including enhanced immune function, better digestion, a barrier against microbial infections and much more.

Prebioticsmeanwhile, are foods that feed the microbes that are already in your body. And there’s been a growing awareness that they are also important because they affect the bacteria in your digestive system in such a way that it might improve your well-being and health. Basically, you help the bugs (by feeding them), and the bugs help you (by protecting you from bad bugs, keeping inflammation down, and so on).

Exactly why this happens isn’t fully understood, but prebiotics are carbohydrates that resist digestion in your small intestine. They reach your colon intact, where they wind up getting fermented by the bacteria there. That can shift gut flora in a positive way.

Some common foods that have prebiotic effects include bananas, whole grain wheat, garlic, leeks, and onions.

How the Microbiome Affects You

Remember how we referred to a “second brain?” That’s where the microbiome becomes more and more interesting for your overall health goals. The gut-brain axis is a two-way line of communication within your body between your brain and gut (at least they made the name easy to remember).

Your brain affects your gut, and your gut health affects your brain.

Each one can affect the other — for better or for worse. When your gut bacteria is out of whack, the signals that get relayed back up to your brain might cause or worsen anxiety or mood disorders, including depression. And stress—you know, what you feel when you’ve got looming deadlines or worries about paying the bills—can impact your gut microbiota negatively, and shift it in a less-than-favorable direction

Gut Dysbiosis describes what happens when you have an imbalance of gut bacteria favoring the more pathogenic (potentially harmful) microorganisms. This sort of imbalance is associated with a number of different problems including digestive disorders such as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Those can manifest in many different ways, from consistent abdominal pain or diarrhea, fatigue or weight loss. Some skin problems like rosacea can potentially be linked to gut health issues. These types of medical issues will be much easier to notice, so don’t freak out or believe people that want to sell you expensive supplements or cleanses. As always, if you are worried about a medical condition, see a doctor and have the problem diagnosed.

While current research is still developing and learning about the many roles that gut bacteria play in our body, here are some of the things that we do know — and what you can do about it.

How Your Body Processes Calories and Nutrients: There’s growing evidence that shows your gut bacteria impact what you’re able to extract from your food, both in terms of the total number of calories absorbed and the nutrients you take in—and even in determining how much food you want to eat.

There are a number of complex mechanisms that make this possible, so here’s one example of how your microbiome affects energy balance: Gut bacteria break down previously undigested carbohydrates called polysaccharides into smaller bits known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). When your body’s fat cells sense an increase in SCFAs, they release a hormone called leptin, which essentially sends a signal to the brain that says “We’re full, thanks. You can lay off the nachos.” This is a good thing. But, if you’re not releasing enough SCFA because of a break in your microbiome, then the opposite can happen and you never feel full.

This is part of the reason why some researchers believe there’s a strong link between the condition of the gut and obesity. There’s even some researching showing that obese and non-obese people have differing levels of bacteria. (It’s worth noting, however, that no one is suggesting that your microbiome is the only factor causing obesity. Diet and exercise matter, and, certainly, also impact that healthy — and unhealthy — bacteria in your body.)

What Foods You Want to Eat: While most people chalk up their cravings to willpower (this is something that’s repeatedly proven to be incorrect), many researchers now believe that your gut bacteria might be manipulating you “like microscopic puppetmasters” to get what they want.

There is an internal battle in your microbiome where different bacteria in your digestive system are constantly competing for resources (food). Here’s where it gets crazy: these bacteria can create food cravings or generate feelings of dissatisfaction (mood) that can be alleviated by consuming the foods that benefit them. And it can work for good or bad. Your body might be telling you to eat more protein (yay!) or it could be pushing you for endless amounts of sugar (aw shit!). There are four main mechanisms that play a role in this ongoing battle:

  1. Microbes (just a fancy name for the bacteria in your stomach) could alter your taste receptors, making certain foods taste better. (And no, they aren’t working to make you like broccoli. Bad-news bugs thrive on bad-news fuel sources like those high in sugar.)
  2. Microbes could release toxins that can affect mood negatively, which can make you want to eat.
  3. Microbes could influence whether or not you find certain foods rewarding. (That happens by influencing an important part of the endocrine system known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.)
  4. Microbes could “hijack” the vagus nerve, which is a major signaling pathway within the body.

Your Immune System: Your gut bacteria can assist your immune system by preventing potentially harmful pathogens from entering into the digestive system. You can think of the good bacteria as bouncers setting up velvet ropes along the walls of your intestines. They won’t let bad bacteria ruin the party. This helps protect the intestines against inflammation and prevents pathogenic bacteria from forming colonies.

What’s “Good” or “Bad” for Your Gut Health?

The colonization and development of your gut bacteria began at your birth and continues to evolve throughout your life. Some of the things that can adversely affect the microbial diversity in your gut include:

Antibiotics. Let’s be clear: We are not advocating against antibiotics. They can be potentially lifesaving drugs that absolutely have a time and a place for use. Antibiotics, however, indiscriminately kill the microbes in your body, which can lead to a disturbance of gut flora that you will need to work to rebalance and improve. The takeaway: Save the antibiotics for when you’re really sick. (But when a doctor says take them, take ‘em.)

Stress. Stress comes in many shapes and forms, but, on a basic level, stress is anything that removes your body from homeostasis or equilibrium. That stress can be psychological (worry, anxiety), physical (sleep deprivation is a physiological stressor that can negatively impact your gut bacteria), to social (feeling like a “loser”). All of them can disrupt the composition, diversity, and number of microorganisms in your digestive tract.

(Too Many) Processed Foods. A high-fat, sugar-rich diet feeds the pathogenic bacteria in your gut. Note that eating some sugar, or processed food here or there, isn’t a problem (We’ve discussed the overblown fear of sugar). It becomes problematic when you eat too much of them, combined with too little fiber — and most Americans get far less than the recommended 25 grams of fiber per day.

Diets that are high in processed foods, and low in fiber, have been shown to wreak havoc on gut microbes in trials in mice. Obviously, mice aren’t human, but similar results have occurred regularly enough that Dr. Justin Sonnenburg, an associate professor of microbiology at Stanford University, says simply: “It’s now evident that everybody should be eating more dietary fiber.”

Can You Test Your Microbiome?

Where there is a health problem, you can usually find a business offering a solution. This is not necessarily a bad thing (we all need cures to problems), but sometimes business interests come before practical applications. In other words: people are happy to sell you something based on theory and not on proof.

There are many new tests that claim to give you insight into your microbiome (most involve you sending your poop to a lab, so don’t be surprised when that’s the request). The problem: you will provide science with more (much needed) data…but it won’t really help you get more answers.

As discussed in a recent New York Times article (that we highly recommend), here are a few important takeaways about the big limitations of personalized microbiome testing:

  • “It’s not ready for prime time.” (referring to personalized microbiome testing) -Dr. Rashmi Sinha, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute 
  • “You’ll get an enormous amount of data that is basically uninterpretable,” -Dr. Martin J. Blaser, director of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University, though he added, “there are people who will be very happy to take your money and tell you they can interpret it.”
  • “What you can do with the information at the moment is limited. It’s very much a science project, not a diagnostic test.” – Dr. Rob Knight, director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at the University of California, San Diego

Translation: we know the microbiome is important, but interpreting your microbiome, knowing what will or won’t have and impact, and how those changes will help your health is all still being investigated.

While that doesn’t help you figure out if you have a healthy (or unhealthy microbiome), it’s good to know that if you spend your money on any “microbiome services” it’s not likely your best use of money. The value from these tests will come with time and more clarity and understanding. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your microbiome.

How You Can Improve Your Gut Health

Three cups of fermented foods: sauerkraut, pickles and yogurt.
Fermented foods are great, but don’t forget the fiber, fruits and veggies.

The good news is many basic practices that are good for your body are also good for your gut health. While you can’t assess those changes directly, there’s enough evidence to suggest that the recommendations below are good general practices for a healthy microbiome.

  • Eat more fiber. We’re not trying to beat a dead horse, but carbohydrates and fiber are the most important sources of energy for the beneficial bacteria living in your colon. The fermentation of carbs and fiber in your digestive system helps lower its pH and therefore helps limit the bad bacteria. So you’d do well to consume more fiber-rich foods like:
    • Fruits such as raspberries (8 grams of fiber per cup), apples (4.4 grams per medium-sized piece), bananas (3.1 grams), oranges (3.1 grams), and strawberries (3.0 grams per cup)
    • Vegetables such as peas (8.1 grams of fiber per cup), broccoli (5.1 grams). Brussels sprouts (4.4 grams), corn (3.6 grams), or a baked potato (2.9 grams)
    • Grains such as barley (6 grams per cup), oats (4 grams) or brown rice (3.5 grams). Whole-wheat spaghetti has 6.3 grams of fiber.
    • Beans, whether they’re black, kidney, pinto, or you-name-it, are glorious sources of fiber. A cup of any one of them will give you a double-digit dose of fiber.
    • Nuts, especially almonds (3.5 grams per ounce, or about 23 nuts), pistachios (2.9 grams) and pecans (2.7 grams).
  • Cook more at home. Research shows that food eaten away from home tends to have less fiber on a per-calorie basis. Pressed for time? This approach to meal prep may help you simplify things and get more done in less time.
  • Eat fermented foods that contain probiotic bacteria, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi.
  • Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep. Having trouble getting to sleep? Here are some non-obvious solutions you may want to try.
  • Try to keep your stress levels in check. (Obviously, easier said than done, but something like meditation or journaling might help.)


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