THE GOOD GUT: Taking Control of Your Weight, Mood, and Health

Author: Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg
Publisher: Random House
Book Publication: 2015

What’s inside of us matters.  Moreover, it is becoming evident that the understanding and proper care of what resides inside our gastrointestinal tract (the gut – a dense collection of bacteria and microbes or microbiota) is one of the most important health matters we face.

Justin and Erica Sonnenburg are scientists working at Stanford University Medical Centre, studying the human microbiota. In The Good Gut the Sonnenburgs provide us with the information they need to acquaint ourselves with the flood of new microbiota research findings. Based on this data, they offer advice on how we can optimize health through dietary and lifestyle changes that focus on the “entity on which so much of our biology is centered, the gut microbiota.”

Our gut, the Sonnenburgs explain, is home to more than 100 trillion bacteria (about 1200 different species). On the surface that would seem plenty, right? However, when compared to the Amerindians in the Amazonas of Venezuela, who have a full one third more, as do other groups of people with lifestyles and diets more similar to our ancient human ancestors, our gut bacteria might actually belong on the endangered species list. The reason for this, the authors contend, is our “overly processed Western diet, overuse of antibiotics, and our sterilized homes. This is what is threatening the health and stability of our intestinal habitats and may be contributing to many modern, mostly Western, health concerns: asthma, allergies, autoimmune disorders, obesity, cancer, and even autism and depression.”

A major function of the gut microbiota is to consume a specific type of carbohydrates called microbiota-accessible carbohydrates or MACs – complex carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. When our microbiota consumes MACs (and they need plenty to maintain a robust and thriving community in our gut), they release compounds into our gut that help our body “regulate its immune system, keep pathogenic or bad bacteria at bay, and even contribute to whether we are lean or obese.”

Based on the findings in their lab, the Sonnenburgs have adopted their own Big MAC diet, as well as having increased their intake of fermented foods like unsweetened yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. To help us maintain a more microbiota-friendly diet, recipes and meal plans are included at the end of the book that sound both delicious and fairly simple to prepare.

In addition to our Western diet, the widespread use of antibiotics and other anti-bacterial practices (food sanitization, soaps, harsh cleaning products) that are meant to target pathogens have likely contributed to the eradication of whole species of friendly bacteria; this in turn could lead to deficiencies and diseases. To increase our exposure to microbial diversity, the authors recommend having a pet and a garden – it has been observed that “children growing up with pets are less likely to suffer from asthma and allergies, and scientific evidence is mounting that suggests exposure to environmental microbes like those found in soil may help protect us from autoimmune diseases.”

The authors caution that there is still a lot to learn and understand regarding the effects of our current diet and lifestyle on the gut microbiota, and the strategies that might be used to correct it. However, they also believe there is a huge opportunity, given the gut microbiota’s plasticity, for us to repair its damaged landscape and protect its future diversity. Then our good gut, in turn, can protect us – the human body it calls home.

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Susannah Kent is a Toronto area Fitness and Healthy Lifestyle Instructor.

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