The term “microbiome” is used to describe the commensal collective genetic material present within a specific region of the body. Put simply, it is all the bacteria and yeasts that inhabit our bodies. When our microbiome is working in synergy with us and providing benefits to us, we call it “healthy.” When this community is working against our health, we call it “dysbiotic” or “unhealthy.”
Focusing for a moment on an unhealthy microbiome…it is generally found that people with an unhealthy microbiome have pathogenic yeasts living in disproportionate amounts in their guts. Yeast levels are up; good bacteria levels are down. A pathogenic yeast is a species which does not work in synergy with our health, but instead works against it. The most common are Candida Albicans. What promotes the growth of these pathogenic yeasts? Answer: Sugars. Yeast eat sugars. They need them to survive.
Recently, research is suggesting these bad yeasts (and other pathogenic bacteria) may act like a parasite and drive “the host” (us) to consume the foods they need to survive. You can read more about this idea in this New York Times article. So as the sugars we eat promote more yeasts to grow in our guts, those yeasts turn around and make us eat more sugars. The snake begins to eat its own tail. Additional information on the gut/brain connection can be found in this Science Friday episode.
Another bit of information to consider here is other foods that feed yeasts. Starchy carbohydrates are metabolized in our bodies as glucose (a sugar) and feed yeasts too. Food ingredients that contain starchy carbohydrates are ubiquitous in our modern prepared foods and include flours (wheat, corn, rice, tapioca starch, etc.) and starchy vegetables like potatoes. If we consider all the foods made with a combination of sugar and these few ingredients, we account for perhaps 90% of all the food offerings at conventional grocery stores and restaurants (with fast food restaurants being the greatest offenders, but not the only ones.) These ingredients are cheap and afford strong profit margins for food producers and manufacturers.
People in the U.S. consumed 1 million metric tons of sugar in 2013 (read more). That’s over 73 pounds of sugar per person per year! Sure we also eat about 415 pounds of vegetables per person according to USDA data quoted in a recent NPR article, but those data included corn and potatoes. Corn isn’t even a vegetable – it’ s a grain. Never mind that, they feed bad yeasts. The same article mentions we eat 273 pounds of fruit, but it is quick to point out it is mostly water weight. I will be quick to point out that fruit sugars feed yeasts too. Additionally, the article states we consume about 630 pounds of milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream per year. How much of that total is milk, yogurt and ice cream would be interesting to know since sugars are often added to those three examples in high amounts (thinking chocolate milk in the case of the milk).
So those cravings for sweets like ice cream, soda, chocolate, yogurt (which typically contain soda-like sugar levels) and breads, pastas, risotto, etc. can be a good indicator of the health of our microbiome.
Medical practitioners often point people to probiotics to help them promote a healthier microbiome in their gastrointestinal tract. Better yet, people can consume fermented foods which are cultured with probiotic bacteria and are more effective. But the effects of consuming sugar and high-glycemic carbohydrates like those mentioned above should not be overlooked. Strict limits on these yeast-feeders will go a long way toward improving the health of one’s inner microbiome.
“But the human body needs carbs for energy!” you say.
This is correct, but there are healthier, lower-glycemic carbs available to us. And we don’t need to eat as much carb-laden foods as we do on average. Good alternatives include quinoa, millet, buckwheat, and amaranth.
“I’m gluten free. Does that help?”
Avoiding gluten does help many as the glycoprotein gluten can cause inflammation in the gut (often unbeknownst to us) and inhibit healthy bacteria there. But be aware that gluten free food producers often use high-glycemic carbohydrates such as rice flour, corn flour and tapioca starch as substitutes for wheat flour and alternative sugars like brown rice syrup or agave, which all feed yeasts very well. Switching to gluten free cupcakes, cookies and brownies does not do one’s microbiome any good. Similarly, consuming products promoted as “gut healthy,” such as kefirs that contain soda-like sugar levels, does little to improve the health of our microbiomes.
To sum this all up, the best approach for fostering a healthy inner microbiome is to first avoid the foods that feed “the bad guys” in your gut and second, to promote “the good guys” by consuming fermented foods and probiotics. Turning around the damage done by years or even decades of eating a yeast-promoting diet does not happen overnight. It can take months and even years to steer the ship in another direction, but it is being done by people every day and they are living healthier, happier lives for the effort.
Photos courtesy freedigitalphotos.net