Research on covid-19 and the gut reports that the gut microbiome composition is seen to be significantly altered in patients with covid-19 compared with healthy individuals. There is a strong association between gut microbiota composition, levels of cytokines (large groups of proteins, crucial in controlling the growth and activity of immune system cells and blood cells) and inflammatory markers in patients with covid-19, suggesting that the gut microbiome is involved in the magnitude of covid-19 severity, possibly via modulating host immune responses. In this scenario, and given the current rise in the number of covid-19 cases, it is imperative to understand the role of the human microbiome—in sickness and in health.
We are born pure, unfettered, without any contamination. But did you know that the moment you exit the birth canal, you start picking up the microbes from your environment? As Raphael Kellman says in The Microbiome Diet, ‘You become 90% microbe’. Even adult human beings are 10% human and 90% microbes. The microorganisms that make their home in us are collectively called the human microbiota, and the microbiome (the genetic code of each microorganism) is a miniature world of non-human organisms that flourish within us.
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The different communities of microbes are like different sects or cultures living in different parts of our bodies, the largest home for them being the gut. The bacteria living in your digestive tract are different from the ones that live in your lungs. It’s almost as though we exist as ecosystems and not individuals; ecosystems made of bacteria, yeasts, viruses and parasites. These are the body’s microbiota that help you fight against disease and are also the indicators of disease.
A weak microbiome is linked to many diseases and health conditions; from irritable bowel disease to cancers, candida, inflammation, food intolerances, and autoimmune diseases.
You have more bacterial cells then human cells, so you can only imagine the quantum of microbes in your body. Your microbiome has a regulatory effect on your brain function and mental health as well, and therefore it impacts anxiety, depression, stress, and may brain disorders.
Think of your gut as a garden—rich and green. Go ahead and visualize it. Now think of these friendly microorganisms inhabiting that garden. How you choose to build the soil (i.e., the nutrition through food) to keep these microorganisms nourished and healthy is entirely up to you.
This is the key to everything in your life. Taking care of these various microorganisms plays a crucial role in our health and outward manifestations of it (skin, hair, nails, glow, weight, mind, attitude, and a whole lot more). According to me, this is the missing link in all diets, especially Indian diets.
The gut microbiome and your diet
The breakdown of the gut microbiome is referred to as ‘dysbiosis’ An imbalance in the gut microflora, with an overgrowth of the bad ones as opposed to the good ones will lead to dysbiosis.
The causes of dysbiosis are attributed to impaired digestion, hypochlorhydria (basically low stomach acid, leading to undigested food remaining longer in the stomach than it should), overuse of antibiotics throughout one’s life, higher ethanol (ethyl alcohol) in the blood than normal due to yeast overgrowth, NSAIDs (basically pain-relievers), slow transit time-decreased peristalsis, impaired immune status, and dietary factors.
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One crucial factor linked to the breakdown of gut bacteria is consuming processed foods. People who eat minimally processed foods— whole grains, vegetables, nuts, eggs and foods that are in season—are more likely to keep in the good bacteria. Sweetened foods, sugars, white refined grains (commercial bread), processed meats, are associated with bad gut bacteria composition and poor metabolic health as well.
What can we do to aid a build-up of beneficial gut bacteria?
Your gut microbes only respond to what you eat, and you need to seriously think of what you feed them or don’t feed them.
Here is what you should be eating to feed them well: Whole grains, especially brown rice and millets; vegetables and leafy greens; beans and lentils and this could include soybean products like tofu and tempeh; nuts and seeds; fruit, especially seasonal and local; fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee, pickles, kefir; fish and eggs if you are non-vegetarian; spices and herbs. Drink teas (mainly decaffeinated) and avoid coffee.
Alcohol, sugar, garlic, red meats, chicken, cheese, dairy, refined flour products should be avoided if you are unwell. Foods that will help disperse the heat during a fever are ginger, leafy greens, cabbage, sprouts. If you feel congested, use a little ginger in cooking, along with green onions and leeks.
Seek to balance the liver by including leafy greens and bitter/sour foods: mustard, radish, green apples, rocket (arugula) leaves, fenugreek (leaves/seeds), mustard greens, barley grass, lime, apple cider vinegar, mustard.
Along with these, there are some lifestyle recommendations as well that are an intrinsic part of the macrobiotic diet: Sit upright while eating, chew your food well, don’t skip meals, don’t overeat, don’t skip breakfast, avoid ice-cold drinks, don’t sleep on an empty stomach, exercise regularly, inculcate breathing habits (pranayama), sleep well, enjoy the outdoors, stay in touch with friends and family.
Having a healthy microbiome is really the key to fighting any ailment, and also, given the current scenario, fighting covid-19.
Shonali Sabherwal is a macrobiotic nutritionist and the author of three books, The Beauty Diet, The Detox Diet, and The Love Diet.