Why Is The Gut Microbiome Important For Your Health?

Why Is The Gut Microbiome Important For Your Health?

Have you ever wondered why the gut microbiome is important for your health? Surprisingly, having a diverse gut microbiome is shown to have positive effects on your digestive system, immune system, and more! But what are practical action steps you should take to optimize your gut microbiome? We have the answers in this episode with Mary Purdy!

We answer these questions:- Why is the gut microbiome important?- What positively affects the microbiome?- How are the gut and brain connected?- Is there a correlation between gut health and autoimmune disease?- What foods should we eat to support the gut microbiome? Mary is an Integrative Eco-Dietitian with a Master’s Degree from Bastyr University where she is currently adjunct faculty. She has been in clinical practice for over 12 years using a personalized medicine and functional nutrition approach. She has given over 100 nutrition workshops, speaks regularly at health and nutrition conferences and was the keynote speaker at Bastyr University’s Commencement Ceremony 2019.

Additionally, she hosts the podcast “The Nutrition Show” and authored the books “Serving the Broccoli Gods” and “The Microbiome Diet Reset.” She is a trained Climate Reality Leader and a consultant working with organizations to create a sustainable and equitable food system that supports planetary health and helps to mitigate climate change.


Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: Today on the gut health reset podcast, we are talking all about the microbiome. We are also going to talk about tips and tricks that you can do to improve your gut health right now. 

Background Speaker: Are you struggling with bloating, gas, constipation, and fatigue, but don’t know what’s causing these problems. The gut health reset podcast with Dr. Ann-Marie Barter dives deep into the root causes behind these issues that start in the gut. This podcast will give you the knowledge you need to heal your gut and reset your health. 

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: My name is Dr. Ann-Marie Barter, and thank you so much for joining us here today. My special guest is Mary Purdy, who is an integrative eco dietician with a master’s degree from Bastyr University, where she currently is adjunct faculty. She’s been in clinical practice for over 12 years, utilizing personal medicine and a functional nutrition approach. She’s given over a hundred nutrition workshops, speaks regularly at health and nutrition conferences, and was a keynote speaker at Bastyr University’s commencement ceremony in 2019.

Additionally, she hosts a podcast, The Nutrition Show and she’s authored the books, Serving the Broccoli Gods and The Microbiome Diet Reset. She is a trained climate reality leader and a consultant working with organizations to create a sustainable food system that supports planetary health and helps to mitigate climate change.

We are talking about how the microbiome actually can affect your weight. It can affect how you’re utilizing calories. It can impact autoimmune conditions. It can impact things like type one diabetes. It also can be linked to your mental health. We also talk about lifestyle factors that will deplete your microbiome and some things to avoid.

Mary, it is so awesome to have you on the show today, and I am really looking forward to digging into the microbiome because it’s such an important piece of who we are. Bloating and how we feel and energy. I mean, it just encompasses so many things. So how did you get so passionate about the microbiome?

Mary Purdy: Well, I’ve always been really passionate about gut health as a dietician. What we eat affects our gut, because it’s got to go through that long tube that we have in there. Almost always, whoever came to see me when I was in private practice or working with patients, there was inevitably something that came up around digestion. We would have to explore what was triggering the issues, whether it was the bloating or issues that were actually much more chronically related to some of those health conditions that we’re seeing so prevalent in our society these days. Ultimately, it was when I started working at a company called Arivale, which is no longer in existence, but we were actually testing the gut microbiome of all of our clients. So we were seeing hundreds and hundreds of results from stool samples, poop samples, and that allowed us to really dive deep into what kinds of bacteria were in existence in certain individuals and how that related to their health conditions. Then, ultimately how interventions, both lifestyle, and diet-wise were helping to improve, the makeup of their bacteria, and seeing those results was really fascinating.

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: What did you guys see? I’d be interested to know what you found.

Mary Purdy: The research was still in its emerging stage, which I think it constantly is, but one of the things that we saw across the board was mostly about diversity. So I think that’s one of the things we can say for sure about the microbiome. We don’t know what the optimal makeup of the microbiome is for everybody because for everybody, it is always going to be different. What we do know for sure is that when someone has a more diverse microbiome, that is the diversity of different species and different families, different phyla, different geniuses in their, gut microbiome, that usually has been correlated with more, a healthy immune system, better blood sugar values, better heart health. So we also saw that when that diversity score, that’s how we referred to it; a score, a diversity score. When that went up or down, we saw that correlated with some health issues, but also with digestive issues. So that was fascinating to see some of those improvements, and also some of those, compromised functions? 

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: Backslides, right? So what did you guys find as it related to, it sounds like you did pre-and post-testing. A lifestyle would be a certain way and then, you would do some lifestyle modifications and then you would find some other things. What did you find positively affected the gut microbiome from a lifestyle perspective? 

Mary Purdy: It’s a good question. Again, I always have to come back to for different people, it was different, because the way that we were looking at it was a bit of a bird’s eye view, as opposed to the deep dive, because we felt we didn’t have enough research on looking at very, very, very specific strains. So we were looking more at these major phyla or families of bacteria, and what we found, and also what we found in the research and what I’ve continued to see in the research, is that sleep makes a difference on the microbiome. Stress makes a difference on the microbiome. Exercise, regardless of diet, has a positive impact on the microbiome.

So those were really important understandings for us to know that the microbiome ain’t just about what you’re putting in your mouth, right? It’s about what you’re doing with your whole body. It can be about a state of mind as well. I think as practitioners who are looking at things from that holistic perspective, it is essential for us to understand all these lifestyle factors and how they contribute to our health and through what pathways and systems.

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: I think that’s amazing to hear you say that sleep affects your gut. People do not correlate that or put that together that that’s important or exercise or any of these other things that could ultimately be affecting the gut microbiome. Did you guys find an optimal level of sleep? Certain amount of hours? Or when people slept? Did you find any hours or just sleep cycle?

Mary Purdy: Unfortunately, not in the research that we were able to do. That research is still there somewhere, in a DataBank and perhaps they’ve taken and extracted some of that data and put it into more of a formulation that helps them to understand that. We were not able to extract during the time that I was there, for four years, where we were looking at that. Again, what I’ve seen in the research about sleep, in general, is that seven to nine hours tends to be optimal for all health issues, for all systems. Again, that’s going to differ from person to person. There are some people who simply feel they don’t need as much sleep, but in general, we see positive benefits of sleep, on pretty much everything. So around that much, seven to nine hours, that’s what I have found. I’m not sure about what your research has shown as well.

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: Same timeframe. I think eight’s optimal personally. I even found some literature where seven was maybe a little bit too low. But I think from what I’ve seen, there was a clear drop-off at six hours of sleep where people really start to have problems at about six hours. So that’s what I’ve noticed in the literature.

Mary Purdy: I was just going to say, I think six hours and below is correlated or associated with, or causative to higher inflammatory factors, whether that’s CRP or other inflammation in the body. We know that when there’s inflammation in the body, there can often be inflammation in the gut, and that can have an impact on the bacterial population that lives there too. So maybe there’s that correlation as well. Again, I’m extrapolating that from other research, not necessarily causation specifically, but sometimes that’s how our minds have to work. 

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: Well, it’s hard to study that because no one asks how much does sleep affects the microbiome? It hasn’t really been correlated to that amount. I would say as a general rule in practice, and I don’t know what you think, but as a general rule in practice, I think everybody is just fried, wired, but tired, stressed, exhausted. They’ve crammed too many things into a day. So we know that stress will deplete the microbiome, but you said something really interesting. You said, but it’s also a state of mind. What did you mean by that? 

Mary Purdy: That could actually mean a number of things. When we take a step back, I can look at the microbiome and the effect that it has on the body. Many people think, it’s in your digestive tract, so therefore it’s going to impact your digestion. That is absolutely a hundred percent, right. Yes. It affects your digestion and your absorption, but it goes way beyond that. It has to do with your immune function. It protects your body from outside pathogens. It’s one of the first lines of defense. It actually determines how much energy we burn from our food. It has an impact on inflammation. It has an impact on how we metabolize carbohydrates on our insulin sensitivity. It creates short-chain fatty acids, which help to protect our gut. It also helps with creating vitamins and minerals. The other thing about this is the effect that it has on our nervous system. So there’s an interesting cycle that’s going on when we feed our gut, or these bacteria in our gut healthy foods and live a healthier lifestyle that supports their existence and their ability to thrive. There’s actually a connection between our gut and our brain that is occurring via something called the vagus nerve and we’re producing serotonin and other neurotransmitters that help our brain to feel good, feel happy, and feel calm. The bacteria have a really strong role to play in that.

Again, we’re still learning what the research is on this, trying to understand it fully, but in terms of that state of mind; not only is our state of mind-affecting our gut because when we are stressed, our, something called secretory IGA SIGA which is an immune factor, it gets diminished and depleted. That can affect the gut. Or the bacteria there, or the lining actually of that, of the gut. But when we are eating those good foods or not eating enough of those good foods, or eating foods that might be detrimental, that in turn, is having an impact on the bacterial makeup that communicates with our brain and make us feel calm and happy.

So this is a very interesting relationship between the health of our gut, the health of our mental state, and our emotional state as well. That’s a little bit of what I mean about that state of mind piece. 

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Dr. Ann-Marie Barter:  So we’ve really dove into what the microbiome is. Now that we know that it’s a part of the good bacteria living and in our gut, we’ve done a little bit to why it’s important, but are there other reasons that the gut microbiome is important that we haven’t touched on yet? 

Mary Purdy: Well, what could be interesting again, if you look at the literature, you will see that people who have what is known as dysbiosis, which is an imbalance between the good bacteria, which we want a sufficient amount of, and the bad bacteria, which want to keep in check. So dysbiosis is that imbalance between not having enough good bacteria or having too much bad bacteria. What we’ve seen is when there is that dysbiotic relationship that usually is correlated with a number of different health conditions. Like, and again, this can be digestive issues, IBD, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, but also more chronic issues. Metabolic syndrome, type one and type two diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, neurological issues, things with autoimmune issues and that’s a big one, I think, which we don’t often consider.

We think of the immune system, right? If your gut bacteria are protecting you and your immune system, that helps you with preventing disease and infection, but also there can be an autoimmune disruption that occurs as a result of a dysbiotic, bacterial population and we’re seeing so much auto-immunity right now. Again, it’s not just the bacteria, there’s usually a trigger and there’s a trauma and there’s a potential intestinal permeability and other things that can contribute to or inflammatory underlying inflammatory conditions. But, I think  a big one is inflammation which is a hallmark of auto-immunity. Auto-immunity, which is in so many people’s medical history these days, both current and past. So that’s one that I think is important to talk about. 

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: I love that you brought that up because people don’t seem to make the jump between gut health. I feel like you keep driving this point home, which is so important. You don’t make the jump from gut health to diabetes. They don’t make the jump from gut health to autoimmune disease. We have been taught that these are separate systems and “Okay, I have a neurological problem, now I’m going to go see a neurologist. I have a gut issue. I’m going to go see a gastroenterologist”, instead of looking at how these systems work together and how they’re important. We know that the gut microbiome has a major impact on just obesity and weight loss, right? 

Mary Purdy: A lot of it has to do with how calories are being harvested, right? So many people who are struggling with their weight are going, “ I’m not eating more than I feel like I need”. As a dietician, I’m not a big calorie counter. That’s just not how I see food. I’m not interested in viewing food and nutrition that way, but what can be helpful for people is that it may not be about the calories or even the food that they’re eating. It may be about how the bacteria in their gut are digesting, metabolizing, and breaking down that food. If there aren’t sufficient amounts of those good bacteria, that food is not actually being broken down and harvested in a way that helps to burn calories. That may be why somebody is saying.  “I can’t lose this weight. I don’t know what’s going on”. That may be one component of it to consider.

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: So then the next kind of step is to go take probiotics or prebiotics, but people feel worse or don’t feel better or don’t lose weight. What’s your comment on that? 

Mary Purdy: I think it’s almost that can be a differential diagnosis, right? If you take probiotics and you’re feeling worse, first of all, I’m always going to say let’s back off. How many are you taking? Are you taking a hundred billion probiotics? Let’s start with 5 billion or 10 billion. See how that does for you first. If somebody is continuing to feel really, really sick when they’re taking probiotics that may be an indicator that there could be some kind of bacterial overgrowth. I’m sure you’re familiar with SIBO, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, where bacteria are migrating up to the small intestine where they often do not belong and they’re causing a lot of digestive issues like gas, bloating, upset stomach, and nausea. So if you’re taking probiotics, that can actually just exacerbate the whole situation. I think it can be important to take a step back and try and figure it out. What’s going on, what’s triggering this? What are your other symptoms? What’s your medical history? What’s your diet like? Let’s start there and see if we can get you to at least some kind of a baseline. 

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: Well said. Are there specific foods that we can use to really support our gut microbiome? 

Mary Purdy: Absolutely, and I would say I would put them into categories. You could say a specific food, like asparagus, is great. It has inulin which is prebiotic. That’s wonderful. I think it’s easier for people if they hear the category, right? If someone’s got a ton of gas or SIBO, this might be a little problematic, so take a step back, but in general, fiber. Fiber is the key for a good bacterial ecosystem because those bacteria are essentially being fed by the indigestible or non-digestible parts of food. The bacteria are like,  “hurray and hurrah, I get fed today”. The more we get fiber into the diet is good and fiber is defined as essential. If you’re thinking about food groups, we’re thinking about our beans, our whole grains, our nuts, our seeds, our fruits, and our vegetables. I know not all of those foods are going to work for everybody. Fiber is a key component of keeping the gut happy and healthy. That’s one food group. Do you want me to move on to the next?

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: I do, I do. 

Mary Purdy: You can pause me at any time if you need to because I can get passionate about these things and I get on a roll.

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: I love it. 

Mary Purdy: When we’re thinking about fiber, everyone’s needs are different. We’re definitely not getting enough in our general population. People get five to 15 grams of fiber. Just to give you a sense of what that looks like: half a cup of beans is around seven grams of fiber but most people need anywhere between 25 to 40 grams a day. Some might even venture to say, if someone has metabolic syndrome or diabetes or other issues, that higher amount of fiber actually is very beneficial. Again, it varies from person to person. The other thing that’s really important for our bacteria are Phyto compounds, phytochemicals. These are good plant chemicals. 

The more diversity, here comes that diversity word again,  we see in the diet, the better.  The more anti-inflammatory compounds, the better. The bacteria tend to thrive on those antioxidants or those polyphenols that we find in red peppers, broccoli, and green tea. So the more of those we can get in there very often that helps to stimulate the good bacteria and inhibit the bad bacteria. So bright-colored foods. In addition, probiotics are good. Not just the probiotic that you pop in a pill, but probiotic rich foods. This is almost always in every culture included somewhere in cultured yogurt, and that can be non-dairy yogurt or dairy yogurt. It can be fermented foods. It can be sauerkraut,  kimchi, tempeh, miso, or  miso paste. Those are wonderful ways to gain additional good bacteria and also sometimes feed the good bacteria because many of those probiotics can often be sources of the prebiotics, which helped to feed the probiotics. So those are great. 

The last category that I’ll throw out there is omega-three fatty acids. As I mentioned, one of the drivers of dysbiosis that imbalance can be poor gut health is inflammation. Anything we can do to manage and modulate inflammation is really helpful. When we get in more of those omega-3 fatty acids, whether that’s from fish, flax, chia, hemp, that is an important part of the diet for supporting good microbial health. There are just a few ideas.

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: I like it. So, there’s always that big question: cooked, raw, or both? 

Mary Purdy: Yes. Brilliant question and I would say it depends. I think more than any other sentence in the entire world, but I also like where you’re going with the both because many people think it has to be all or nothing, right? I think it can be both. Some people don’t react well to raw foods. If that’s true, then you want to cut back on the raw foods. The thing with cooking is you can guarantee that bacteria that might be in that beautiful batch of spinach that you picked from, a garden, or bought from the store. If you’re cooking that spinach, normally that spinach would have, hundreds of different microorganisms in it because it’s coming from some healthy, solid soil that also has healthy microorganisms in it. We eat that. Whether you wash or not, there are still those microorganisms.

Cooking at high temperatures kills microorganisms. If we are seeking to get those healthy microorganisms from our food, if we’re heating everything, we’re losing some of that. So, there’s something to be said about that. Then again, antioxidants or those polyphenols may shift depending on the food. Eith a heat applied to it, carrots and tomatoes tend to actually give off more of their protective plant compounds when heated. Whereas others may actually lose some of those protective, antioxidants or polyphenol properties when they’re cooked. So a little bit of both, I think is always a good idea. 

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: Where can people find you if they want to get in touch with you?

Mary Purdy: They can find me on my website, which is MaryPurdy.co, not com, but dot C O. I also have a podcast which is called The Nutrition Show, so you can take a look at that on my website or in iTunes or wherever you find your podcasts.

Dr. Ann-Marie Barter: Awesome. Thank you so much for being here. It was such a great conversation. It was wonderful to have you. Love all the wonderful information, love what you’re doing. 

Mary Purdy: Thank you, Dr. Barter. It was so lovely to chat with you today and I’m honored to have been a guest today. 

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Dr. Ann-Marie Barter is a Functional Medicine and Chiropractic Doctor at Alternative Family Medicine & Chiropractic. She is the clinic founder of Alternative Family Medicine & Chiropractic that has two offices: one in Longmont and one in Denver. They treat an array of health conditions overlooked or under-treated by conventional medicine, called the “grey zone”.

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