Each of us is a walking ecosystem. Though we may identify as human, the microbes within us outnumber our human cells. In fact, only 10 percent of the cells within us are human; the rest are microbial. From a genetics perspective, we are even more them than us. In fact, 99.5 percent of the genes in our bodies are actually the genes of the microbes that inhabit our gut. 

It would seem plausible then that our multitudes of microbiota (around 100 trillion per person) could have an outsized impact on our health and well-being. Cutting-edge research over the last five years demonstrates that they do. Moreover, the specific food we choose to eat modifies our gut microbiota, which in turn transforms our health.

From the dawn of humanity, we have coexisted with microbes. These microbes (including bacteria, viruses, fungi and protists) depend on us for shelter and food. We, in turn, depend on them for a sizable portion of our digestive prowess, immunity and even neurotransmitters, which influence our moods and more. While some biota are harmful, a vast majority coexist with us in a mutually beneficial symbiosis.

These microorganisms make themselves at home throughout our bodies — in our mouth, eyes, nose, vagina and more — though they are most abundant in our digestive system, specifically in our large intestine (home to 97 percent of our microbes), where they excel at foraging on fiber from our food.

Not all human gut microbial ecosystems are alike. In fact, we each harbor a unique ecological community of microorganisms that changes rapidly (the average microorganism generation is 20 minutes) with the specific foods we consume and the people, animals, plants and environments we encounter.

Because microorganisms are picky eaters — each species sporting specific plant fiber preferences ­— biotic populations in our colon grow and shrink based on our food choices. When microorganisms get to eat their preferred fibers, they multiply, and when deprived of their predilections their populations are reduced.

So how can we adjust our diets to herald a healthy microbiotic ecosystem in our gut, one that minimizes inflammation and dysbiosis (including gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort and irregular stools), decreases the likelihood of chronic disease and enhances longevity and well-being? Science strongly suggests that our gut health is dependent upon diverse microbiotic communities supported by diets brimming with abundant and diverse plant fibers. 

Decades of research shows that a high-fiber diet is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, obesity, inflammatory disease, kidney stones, colon cancer and other malignancies. Now, cutting-edge studies suggest that our gut microbiome plays a key role in those benefits. Whereas animal products, simple sugars and processed foods are digested earlier in the digestive tract, plant fibers (veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains) arrive at our large intestine mostly undigested, becoming a welcome meal for microbes. When our gut microbes feast on these fibers, they produce short chain fatty acids and butyrate metabolites, which reduce inflammation, thus mitigating chronic illness.  

But for our microbes to produce these helpful metabolites, we must eat plants. Lots of them.  

Health-promoting gut microbiota not only flourish with the consumption of diverse plant fibers, but with fermented foods. Recent research, including a study headed by Stanford researchers Erica and Justin Sonnenberg and published in Cell in August 2022, indicates that diets high in fermented foods (think yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee, miso soup, kefir, lassi, tempe) both increases microbiota diversity and decreases inflammatory markers in healthy adults. In a seven-week double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, participants who switched to a diet high in fermented foods (eating an average of seven servings per day compared to less than one per day pre-study) experienced a 25 percent increase in the variety of gut microbe species as well as a significant, cohort-wide decrease in inflammatory cytokines.

Diets high in fruits, vegetables and other plant fibers not only nourish us with vital nutrients, they also support the microbial communities that are the foundations of our health. A fun way to increase the number of plants you consume is to keep a log awarding yourself one point per plant, aiming for a minimum of 30 distinct plants per week. It’s not as hard as you might think! Recently, I ate 45 unique plants in a single day in three delicious, nutritious home-made meals and felt incredible.

Adding plant fibers can be a healthfully rewarding and creative process. In fact, you can simply up-level meals you already enjoy, adding additional fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and beans to your favorite soups and salads. You can even up-level simple staples like oatmeal. Annie’s Oats is one of my favorite autumn morning meals, full of diverse plant fibers. Soaking and fermenting the oats overnight before cooking can add bonus benefits for your microbiome.

 

Annie’s Oats: A morning microbiome multiplier

• 1/3 cup gluten-free oats (pre-soaked overnight with 1 cup of water and 1 tsp of yogurt to ferment)
•  2 Tbsp chia seeds
•  2 Tbsp flax seeds, ground
•  Handful of raisins or blueberries
•  3 dried mission figs, sliced
• 1/2 cup of toasted walnuts
•  1/4 cup toasted coconut 
• 1/4 tsp fresh ginger, chopped
•  1/2 tsp lions main mushroom powder
• 1/2 tsp turkey tail mushroom powder
• 1/4 tsp whole fennel seeds
• 1/4 tsp cinnamon powder
• Pinch of cardamon, cloves, nutmeg, sea salt, turmeric and black pepper.
• 1/2 tsp ghee
• Water (to desired consistency)

In the evening, put the oats in a cup of water, stir in a teaspoon of yogurt, and place the mixture on the countertop overnight to ferment. In the morning, pour out the soak water to reduce phytic acid and improve digestibility. Add in the rest of the ingredients, as well as plenty of water, and bring to boil. Reduce the heat and simmer on the stove for 10 minutes, stirring regularly. Enjoy your fermented fiber-filled breakfast, brimming with 17 plant points.

 

Annie Lindberg is a licensed practitioner and the owner of The Point Acupuncture and Ayurveda in Madison Park.