How The Western Lifestyle and Diet Negatively Impacts the Microbiome

It is no secret that a westernized diet that includes burgers, hot dogs and soda are not healthy but their effects on our health go beyond just added fat cells. These foods can have detrimental effects on our microbiome.

Beyond diet other western practices have been identified as harmful to the microbiome. Western medicine and an overuse of antibiotics has been attributed to microbiome diversity loss, so has use of common household cleaners and lack of exercise.

Why are these things so harmful to our microbiome? We will explore that in the following sections:

How diet and lifestyle affect the microbiome

Studies have shown that diet has the power to modify the microbial composition of the gut within 24 hours. Making diet an easy way to make improvements to microbiome health but also an easy way to hurt it. Lifestyle can also have major impacts on the microbiome.

Diet

Different diets have diverse impacts microbial composition. A diet that includes animal protein, for example, correlates with overall microbial diversity. It increases Bacteroides, Alistipes and Bilophilas in the gut. While a high fat diet has been associated with loss of A Muciniphila and Lactobacillus, which are essential to a healthy metabolism.

Lifestyle

Lifestyle also has the ability to affect the microbiome. It is not only the stuff we put in and on our body but the way we interact with our environment. Being active or not, level of cleanliness, exposure to antibiotics, etc. can all have major impacts on the health of ones microbiome.

For example, studies have shown that exercising has the ability to balance the Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes ratio in the body. The F:M ratio is crucial to gut health and proper digestion.

What is the western diet and lifestyle?

A western diet is defined by foods high in fat, high in sugar and that are highly processed. Common elements of a western diet also include plenty of red meat and dairy. These foods are generally inexpensive, high in energy and easily accessible.

A western lifestyle is defined by an array of practices. Medical practices that involve the over prescription of antibiotics, cleaning practices that involve chemical cleaners and a lack of physical activity.

In remote regions with little access to western technologies, scientists have reported levels of microbial diversity that far exceed those of the average North American or other westerner. Though those communities might soon be at risk as these “western” practices spread globally and threaten global microbiome diversity.

The cost of a western diet

A recent study published in Cell showed that within 6 months of moving to the US, Thai migrants experienced significant microbial changes in their guts. Most notably more common western Bacteroids began to replace Prevotella, which is more common in non-western populations. Also noted was a general loss of bacterial diversity in the guts of those migrants.

Researcher hypothesis that this is due to changes in diet, from an eastern to western diet (high fat diets). As the world becomes increasingly globalized and western foods continue to spread, the world’s population could be at risk of widespread bacterial loss.

Western practices and the microbiome

Studies have shown that exposure to disinfectants, household cleaners and other chemicals, specifically at young ages can lead to an increase risk of dysbiosis. Method of birth has also been identified as a predisposing factor in dysbiosis risk. Those born by c-section instead of being vaginally birthed present higher risk for dysbiosis and conditions associated with dysbiosis. And antibiotic use has been shown to have devastating impacts on bacterial populations in the body. All of the practices are more common to western regions and could be the reason for high rates of obesity and chronic disease in those areas.

What is dysbiosis?

Dysbiosis or dysbacteriosis is the imbalance of microbial communities within the body. This can manifest in higher occurrence of certain bacteria, lack of occurence of bacteria and lack of diversity of bacteria. An imbalance may occur in any of the microbial sites of the body – including the skin, gut, vagina and nose.

Dysbiosis is commonly associated with GI related conditions such as SIBO, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis and more. Though dysbiosis is not only associated with the gut microbiome, it can also affect the other microbiomes of the body, including the skin, mouth and nose.

Consequences of Dysbiosis

Bacterial diversity is key to the healthy function of the microbiome and we are losing bacterial diversity in our guts with every passing generation. Lose of bacterial diversity could have a dangerous impact on human health. In fact the harms of this lack of diversity have already been connected to a handful of diseases and conditions. So why are these microbes dying on us?

The impact of diet on gut health: short term and long term

Diet and microbiome composition are undoubtedly linked, and a poor diet can lead to increase risk of microbiome related conditions. As it turns out one of the worst kinds of diet for your microbiome is a western diet. This means high fat, high energy and often, processed foods.

Unfortunately the western diet is one that is becoming increasingly common across the globe due its convenience and low cost. And though diet can alter the microbiome within 24-hours, eating a poor diet consistently can starve your microbes, leading to long term consequences that cannot be reversed.

Symptoms of dysbiosis

Dysbiosis symptoms are dependent on the type and location of bacterial imbalance in the body. Dysbiosis can happen in any microbiome niche, which includes the gut microbiome, skin microbiome, oral microbiome and more. Symptoms can present from mild to severe and may be associated with other conditions beyond just dysbiosis.

Common symptoms of dysbiosis include:

  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Chest pain
  • Rash
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms for extended periods of time or chronically you should consult with your doctor.

Dysbiosis related conditions

Researchers have identified a relationship between the following diseases/conditions and dysbiosis:

The connection between dysbiosis and these conditions has lead to new types of treatments including Fecal Microbiota Transplants (FMT) and other bacteria focused courses of treatment.

Combating the harmful effects of western diet and lifestyle

So how can one avoid the devastating effects of western diet and lifestyle? Firstly eating a well balanced diet is key to microbiome health. A Mediterranean style diet that is highly plant based, includes healthy fats (like olive oil) and gets protein from lean source (such as fish and poultry) can keep the microbe well nourished and healthy.

As for lifestyle, avoiding heavy chemical cleaners in the home, not using antibiotics unnecessarily and getting more active all can combat some of the harms of the western world on the microbiome.

We can’t and sometimes don’t want to avoid all of these western practices but cutting down on how often we are participating in them can do wonders for the health of our microbiome our health as a whole.

More information on dysbiosis and diet

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