Let’s think about this for a minute:
Why do you eat?
To stay alive? Because you’re hungry? Because you’re bored? Because you’re trying to push away an emotion that you don’t want to deal with? Because you have a craving? Because you fancy something?
I’m going to suggest a new motivation for your eating: to feed the good bugs in your microbiome.
You are a super-organism
If you think it’s just about you, it’s not! You are actually a “symbiont” – a constellation of human and non-human cells. Inside you there are cells that make up human tissues and organs, and then a bunch of non-human cells, or microbes – bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea. The human cells and non-human cells are coexisting inside the same symbiont – that’s you.
Coexisting with your gut bugs means that you strike a deal with them: they produce energy and vitamins, and help screen out pathogens that threaten your human cells. In return, your human cells help maintain the microbial habit, providing them with a stable environment in which they can thrive and grow.
Classic win-win! Once you understand how your microbiome works, you no longer have only yourself to please. It’s not just about you, and what your tongue wants to taste. You have a responsibility to all of those trillions of tiny critters in there. They have needs. And just because you’re bigger than they are, and you happen to control the mouth, it doesn’t mean that you get to ignore those needs. Nor are your bugs going to allow you to ignore them.
If you’re experiencing IBS, depression, anxiety, skin or autoimmune disorders, then this is the way that your gut bugs are talking to you. And at the moment, they’re not happy with the way you’ve been treating them!
‘‘Our gut microbes are not just passive recipients of the food that we eat – they evolve and change in response to what we feed our bodies,’ says Athena Aktipis, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute in the US.
‘There are certain foods that lead to resource sharing between us and our microbes, while other foods can lead to conflict and resource competition between our bodies and our microbes. This cooperation and conflict framework can help us understand certain aspects of why we get sick and how we can stay healthy.’4
Your gut bugs are living organisms, and like all living organisms, they are constantly evolving. But how will they evolve? That’s up to you, because when it comes to your gut bugs, you are the forces of evolution!
Why your food choices matter
The two processes that determine evolution are competition and cooperation. And the road down which your gut bugs travel is determined by the food you choose to eat. Your dietary decisions determine your bugs’ destiny, and dictate whether they will live or die, cooperate or compete.
But the plot gets even thicker, because you control your bugs’ destiny, and they control yours. The choice of conflict or cooperation between your cells means the difference between your being healthy or ill. One example of cells that compete is cancer cells, which mutate genetically, form independent clusters and rob resources from the host for their own benefit.
Can you see why your decisions around what foods to eat need to be driven by something larger than whether or not you happen to fancy something in that particular moment? There are many lives at stake here, and one of them is yours!
So what should happen? You need to align the needs of your gut microbes with your own needs. Alignment leads to positive health outcomes. Conflict over resources generates disease.
(Side note: I can’t help but see comparisons with the political situation of the larger ecosystem on Planet Earth. The more research I do in this area, the more I’m convinced it’s all a fractal – the pattern is the same inside us, or outside us. And the ultimate solutions are the same: align and cooperate, don’t compete!)
Just think of things from a microbial point of view. How can you and your gut bugs get on the same page? Internal disputes break out when you and your microbes are at cross- purposes. And when the conditions of cooperation break down, the result is IBS, anxiety and depression. Plus a whole host of other nasty health issues.
So what causes this internal conflict? You won’t be surprised by the answer: eating foods that are low in fibre and high in simple sugars (carbohydrates that burn quickly inside your body, producing a rapid increase in blood sugar), saturated fats and emulsifying agents. And this includes most processed foods.
If there’s too much sugar and too little fibre in your diet, the population of ‘bad’ bugs living in your gut explodes. Your body will respond by ramping up immune activity against them, which can result in an escalating conflict between your human and your microbial cells that will have disastrous effects on your health.
Foods that are high in nutrients and low in harmful elements (such as salmon, kale, liver, sweet potatoes, sardines, blueberries, broccoli and eggs) act in the opposite way: they foster cooperation between your human cells and your microbial ones.
And the non-digestible carbohydrates in milk kefir feed the protective bugs in the gut. The specialized proteins in kefir also provide an immunological effect, including cytokines, immunoglobulins and lactoferrin, that act to reduce infection risk.
This is a real departure from conventional ideas about diet. To sum it up: what you eat affects the subtle interconnection between host (you) and microbiome. Essentially, you’ve got to feed the right population of gut bugs.5 It makes me think of a Native American story in which an old Cherokee teaches his grandson about life:
‘A fight is going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight and it’s between two wolves,’ the old man says to the boy.
‘One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.
‘The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.’
The boy thought about his grandfather’s words for a minute and then asked him: ‘Which wolf will win?’
The old Cherokee replies, ‘The one you feed.’
So, which wolf are you going to feed?