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DID YOU KNOW…that the diversity of the plants you consume directly correlates to the diversity of good bacteria in your gut? And those beneficial bugs can affect just about every aspect of your health—from immune support to inflammation regulation, plus even mental and emotional well-being.

The research world is venturing deeeep down the rabbit hole that is the human microbiome (there’s truly so much the bacteria in and on our bodies can teach us). As more findings are released, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: it’s not the volume or amount of good bugs in your gut that matter… 

…it’s about how many different types of bugs (aka bacterial species) are present—and how evenly each of these are represented. 

Of course, we’re talking about GUT DIVERSITY (or microbiota diversity).

Gut diversity matters because it acts as a protective feature to help the gut prepare for anything our lifestyle habits or environment might throw at it—including antibiotic use, stress, toxin exposure, or infection.

Okay, so why is gut diversity important? 

Think of your whole gut microbe population as a garden. The most enchanting gardens tend to be filled with flowers of all sorts of colors and heights and varieties. Naturally, you’re going to get weeds—unwanted but normal and generally nothing more than annoying if kept at bay. Weeds are a part of nature, and all of our gardens will be exposed to them daily, so it’s about being strong enough to balance them and keep them in control. Similarly, in a healthy gut ecosystem, the weeds (bad bacteria) are present, but aren’t prevalent enough to cause destruction because things like our stomach acid production and abundant healthy species fight them off.

But, just like weeds can completely take over and ruin the aesthetic of a garden, so can the bad bacteria in our gut. When the gut microbiome is altered and diversity goes down, our gut’s natural defenses are compromised. This can lead to increased susceptibility to infections, and compromised immune homeostasis and tolerance – possibly contributing to or exacerbating autoimmune diseases, allergies, etc. Makes sense, right? But how does our gut microbiome lose its diversity in the first place? A lot of different ways, actually.

Some factors that can decrease our gut diversity include: 

  • Eating the same things over and over again
  • Consuming highly processed foods, sugar, refined grains
  • A diet that lacks color, fiber, and variety
  • Not being exposed to good old dirt and airborne microbes via nature due to city living or staying indoors
  • Chronic emotional stress and lack of sleep
  • Drugs such as proton pump inhibitors or antibiotics*

*Shockingly, just one round of antibiotics decreases your gut diversity by at least 30%! That’s why it’s important to use them wisely in collaboration with your doctor, and boost your microbiome afterwards with healthy probiotics and fiber, so that your garden can grow back.

Gut diversity goes back to food + fiber diversity

I know a lot of you are based in the US like me, but the prevalence of our gut diversity falling short is a global issue that is only getting worse. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that our food diversity has dropped 75% in the last 100 years. Think about our hunter-gatherer ancestors and how many different leaves, roots, and tubers they ingested when eating from nature rather than grocery store shelves or fast food menus.

My herb school teacher Richard always walked around parks on plant walks, eating as many different (and properly identified—be safe out there!) leaves as possible to feed his gut and mimic the variety of fiber and phytochemicals that our ancestors once achieved. Nowadays, so many of us are consuming the same salads and snacks on rotation, myself included. But our guts need us to expand our palates; it’s the greatest gift we can give our microbiome.

Okay, so we’ve covered how a lack of gut diversity can affect our health on many different levels. But how deep does it go? And what’s really at stake here? 

The connection to modern chronic illness

Chronic illness is almost always connected to chronic inflammation, which is then connected right to the gut. As Dr. Asia Muhammad told us on the What’s the Juice podcast, a higher concentration of bad bacteria in the gut (combined with this lack of diversity/good bacteria) often causes systemic inflammation that can affect everything from the joints, to our skin, and more.

Here are just some of the common issues we face that are connected to a lack of gut diversity on a root cause level: 

PCOS Stool samples of women with PCOS have shown a significantly lower microbial diversity compared to control samples. Another study found that high testosterone and facial hair growth were negatively associated with this same diversity (meaning the gut may be what’s actually driving hormone imbalance as we’ve thought all along!). 

Colorectal Cancer – A recent study found that gut diversity was significantly lower in subjects with colorectal cancer, compared to healthy samples, which showed higher markers of gut diversity.

Type 2 Diabetes – Studies have also connected chronic inflammation caused by a lack of gut diversity to obesity and type 2 diabetes. The gut microbiome has a direct impact on how we metabolize glucose on a cellular level, thanks to its role in modulating inflammation and thus insulin resistance. You can read our full post on insulin resistance here.

Children’s health: Did you know that 60–70% of our microbiome through adulthood is developed during the first year of our life? Dr. Elizabeth Wade explained to us just how important microbiome health is to our development and overall well-being on an episode of What’s the Juice Podcast. What’s even more fascinating is that so much of this comes from our mothers—mom shares quite a bit of her microbiome while in utero, during a vaginal birth, and through breastfeeding.

So not only does a mother’s microbiome help set her up for a healthy life and pregnancy, but it can help set up her baby for a healthier life just by passing on some of that rich diversity! And—as we’ve mentioned previously—since healthy gut diversity supports a healthy immune system (including in relation to autoimmune diseases), babies with healthy gut diversity may be less likely to develop food allergies, eczema, etc. into childhood and beyond.

Benefits of healthy gut diversity 

Because just about everything can be connected back to your gut, the more diverse your gut microbiome is, the more likely you will have better overall health.

Here are some of the more specific ways we can tie a healthy gut microbiome to the big picture of health, with references at the end of this article:

Cancer-fighting support – In the context of melanoma, studies show that a diverse gut microbiome is associated with both a higher response rate to treatment and longer progression-free survival.

Postmenopausal support – Studies show that postmenopausal women who have diverse gut microbiomes generally have a more favorable ratio of estrogen metabolites—which is associated with a reduced risk for breast cancer (compared to those with less gut diversity). 

Autoimmune disease support – Dr. Elizabeth Wade explained on an episode of What’s the Juice that taking probiotics may actually lessen the need for thyroid medication for those with autoimmune thyroid disease because a healthy gut microbiome can help support healthy thyroid function.

Less risk of allergic inflammatory conditions – Similarly to autoimmune diseases, allergies and many inflammatory conditions can be linked back to the gut. The healthier the gut, the less the risk of developing or exacerbating these.

How to Feed Your Gut Microbiome & Improve Gut Diversity 

Here are the basic tenants of gut diversity that all of us can keep in mind when looking to support our gut health on the deepest level:

Eat 30+ plants per week – Okay, this one sounds intimidating, but I promise it’s not. If you have a really yummy salad one day—made with a lettuce blend, topped with 5 different veggies such as peppers and tomatoes—that’s already 7+ different plants. Top your salad with hemp, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds and you’ve got 3 more right there. Grab or make a green smoothie, and you might get another 6 or 7 in one serving. All of a sudden you’re halfway there with just a meal and snack!

Get your blood moving While all exercise is great (you all know I love my morning walks!), slightly intense cardio—running, cycling, dancing, etc.—is shown to increase oxygen transport throughout your body, which has a positive correlation to a healthy gut microbiome, helping to create a favorable environment for the diverse species we want to keep around. The gut microbiome loves oxygen! 

Add in berries – As Dr. Asia Muhammad told us on What’s the Juice that berries—which are rich in polyphenols and anthocyanins—help promote healthy bacteria and discourage the growth of bad bacteria in the gut. You could eat a handful of berries, or add whole ground berry powder to your smoothies to get a daily dose.

Drink green tea Like berries, green tea is rich in polyphenols (and a ton of other compounds that are great for all kinds of healthy bodily functions), which are shown to promote good bacteria and balance out the bad bacteria within the gut microbiome. 

Take probiotics and/or prebiotics – We love probiotics and prebiotics, especially for immune system health and t-cell balance. By adding richness and diversity to our microbiome, we can modulate our immune response—bringing it down from over-activation and hypersensitivity to calm, cool, and collected.

Embrace the herbs – I love gentian, angelica, orange peel, oregon grape root, and licorice to help support a healthy gut and digestive system. These are the specific bitters I use in my Digestive Juice formula, but all bitter plants and herbs will do your gut health a solid. Herbs (especially bitters) contain phytochemicals that, like berries, create a favorable environment in the gut for healthy bacterial growth, while also creating an unfavorable environment for opportunistic ‘weeds.’ Ginger, turmeric, oregano, cinnamon, and so many others can help support a healthy gut microbiome as well. Choose what calls to you!

Find ways to reduce stress – Obviously easier said than done, but chronic stress is linked to chronic inflammation, which, of course, is linked to gut health modulation (for the worse) and sooooo much more. Since the causes of stress are so innately personal, the solutions may be as well. While singing, making art, and taking long baths may help me—maybe, for you, it’s going for walks or practicing yoga or talking it out with a therapist or friend.

Recipes to increase variety in your diet + microbiome

Last month, we kicked off the #GutDiversityChallenge, where every week we texted our SMS subscribers a brand new recipe that Nick whipped up in the kitchen using a vegetable that we don’t often rotate into our weekly meals. The goal was to try new things, or pick back up ingredients that we didn’t know how to work with in the past, and create easy, accessible recipes that everyone can try to up their diversity. These include:

  1. Nick’s Parsnip Mash – instead of potatoes, rotate in this resistant starch star to feed the good bugs that produce immune modulating short chain fatty acids!
  2. Nick’s Okra Chips – an intimidating veggie turned into a delicious, crunchy snack.
  3. Nick’s Simply Seasoned Garlic Artichoke – not only is snacking on this beautifully, simply seasoned artichoke going to promote the growth of your good bacteria by providing a unique prebiotic fiber we don’t always eat regularly… artichokes are famous for supporting our liver’s detoxification functions and pathways.
  4. Nick’s Meticulous Cabbage Salad – so many of you tell us that you make this at least once a week, and it can always be modified to include even more veggies depending on what you have in the fridge!

We hope you love these recipes and feel motivated to add more fiber and color to your diet! Gut health is truly the gift that keeps on giving. x

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3577372/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4709861/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28045919/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29370410/
https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/105/24/1907/2517573
http://www.fao.org/3/i2043e/i2043e02a.pdf
https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/EP087404
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5357536/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6491826/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6535288/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6056614/
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180515092931.htm
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140310090919.htm
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150416132203.htm
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171011123728.htm
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/09/190909081807.htm
https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179
https://www.viome.com/blog/secret-healthy-gut-microbiome-diversity-diversity-diversity
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0955286318303073

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