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Why bacteria keep you healthy

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We have more bacteria in our gut than cells in our body. Here's why minding these microbes can help you get healthy from the inside out.

As foreign as it sounds, the word microbiome may soon be part of the mainstream lexicon. The term refers to the microbes or bacteria that naturally inhabit the body from the surface of your skin to your gut. We tend to think of microbes as bad—pathogens that need to be killed—but new research suggests that storing scores of them is paramount to our health and metabolism.

"We have 100 trillion microbes in our gut—more bacteria than cells in the body. They aid in digestion and detoxification, help support our immune system, and manufacture key vitamins, among other functions. Western medicine is catching on to the importance of all the bacteria in our bodies—especially in our gut. In Functional Medicine we've been manipulating this microbiome for some time, but it's primarily been guesswork." says Dr. Frank Lipman, the founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness in Manhattan. "Understanding these microbes is the future of medicine."

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The Human Microbiome Project, a National Institute of Health initiative, is working to shed light on the topic. "It's such a new field and there are so many studies underway. But we do know that it's important to keep your flora in a balanced state," says Lipman. "A disturbed microbiome, where bad bacteria and yeast overtake the good ones can cause all sorts of health problems from autoimmune diseases to weight gain."

Thus far, gut microbes have been shown to influence metabolism, and certain types may play a role in obesity. In fact, one family of bacteria called Firmicutes can even cause you to absorb more calories from your food. Another, called Bacteroidetes, is associated with leanness.

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Wondering how to keep your belly balanced—and flat? Your trump card may be a healthy diet, which can prevent microbes associated with obesity from flourishing. No real surprises there, and until more is known Lipman suggests keeping your microbiome in mind when you eat. Here are his five tips:

1. Eat pre-biotic foods

Healthy gut bacteria thrive on pre-biotics, which are non-digestible fibers found in foods like root vegetables, onions, leeks, garlic, artichokes, beans, asparagus, oats, nuts, and bananas. Think of it as giving the good microbes something to chew on.

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2. Drink your green juice

There are thousands of bacterial strains, and while we don't know enough about all these organisms yet, greens appear to help improve the diversity of healthy organisms in the gut. Plus, research shows that the greater the diversity, the greater the health benefits.

3. No more processed foods

The additives in processed foods can kill off good bacteria. Refined carbs are also problematic because sugar feeds bad bacteria, allowing it to proliferate and leading to physical cravings for more sugar. Stay away from wheat and soy, too. Most are genetically modified and GMOs disrupt gut flora.

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4. Limit antibiotics—the over-the-counter meds and the ones in your meat

There's a place for antibiotics, but don't take them every time you have a runny nose. They're overused and even though they target bad bacteria, they also kill off the good guys. Another surprising problem is factory-farmed meats. Seventy percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in livestock, leading to chronic exposure; when you consume the meat, you're absorbing those antibiotics, too.

5. Get your probiotics

Fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, and sauerkraut are making appearances on more menus as people learn more about body ecology. They're important because they naturally contain probiotics, which encourage the growth of good bacteria. Some people also respond well to a supplement. Choose one containing some of the most studied probiotic strains: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium lactis.

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