Gut health means a thriving microbiome
Credit: Illustration by Neil Web

The New Science of Your Gut: What's Wrong with Our Gut

When the microbiome is out of balance, it can decrease energy levels, injure metabolism, and give rise to a host of other long-term health problems. It's like a rain forest that's been clear-cut: prone to mudslides and unable to shelter the plants, animals, birds, and insects that once thrived there. Some of the nation's top scientists go so far as to say that unhealthy microbiomes lie at the heart of the most prevalent health issues today, like heart disease, obesity, asthma, and even cancer. At last year's International Human Microbiome Congress, Dr. Martin Blaser, a New York University microbiologist, delivered a shot across the bow: Our modern reliance on antibiotics, he says, has deranged the microbiome, and is likely a major reason for the rise of many contemporary diseases.

Mainstream medicine is finally realizing that antibiotics, which indiscriminately wipe out gut bacteria – the good with the bad – may alter the balance of the microbiome in the long run and should be used only when strictly necessary. Doctors like Lipman will go a step further to recommend avoiding factory-farmed meat, which contains low doses of antibiotics that can build up in the human system.

But nothing is more important than the decisions we make about what to eat every meal of the day. For this, there's a simple rule: "Eat as many high-fiber fruits and vegetables and legumes as you can," says Stanford University's Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist who studies how diet impacts bacteria in the gut. "Our hypothesis is that a variety of plant fibers supports a diversity of gut microbes," and if you don't get enough, it weakens your gut bacteria.