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Ask a researcher: What is the microbiome and how can I keep it healthy?

June 14, 2019 Medical Research By Sunil Thomas, PhD

Every human is home to trillions of bacteria and other microbes. Those microorganisms—collectively known as your microbiome—can be either beneficial or harmful to your health.

In recent years researchers have learned that people who grew up in ultra-clean environments were more likely to develop allergies, asthma and autoimmune disorders. Scientists call this the hygiene hypothesis.

Lack of exposure to microorganisms can mean the immune system is not properly trained or prepared to tackle germs. Over time, the result can be an overactive immune system that is perpetually hyper-ready to pounce on and attack you, the host. The goal, then, is a harmonious, symbiotic relationship between your microbiome and your immune system.

With the intent of helping patients focus on clinically relevant data to discuss with their doctors, we asked Sunil Thomas, PhD, an immunology researcher at Lankenau Institute for Medical Research, what steps he takes to boost the health of his own immune system and microbiome.

What lifestyle habits have you adopted?

I exercise regularly and engage in outdoor activities whenever possible to keep my immune system working by natural exposure to microorganisms. Additionally, I take zinc supplements regularly to keep cold viruses at bay, and I avoid taking antibiotics when I have a minor infection. I use antibiotics only when I have a major infection and when my doctor strongly recommends them.

Do you focus on any particular beverages or foods?

Hydration improves the activity of enzymes that indirectly help improve the gut microbiota. So I try to drink seven to 10 glasses of water daily to remain properly hydrated and help boost the health of my gut microbiome. Of course, a lot of people do that, too, and it’s a good daily practice to maintain.

I don’t drink bottled water, because it’s ultra-pure and has no microbes. Remember: For a healthy and active immune system, we do need exposure to some microbes. Instead, I drink tap water. Plus, tap water is cheaper than bottled water and doesn’t produce plastic waste in the environment.

Butyrate is a healthy fatty acid produced in the gut from dietary fibers. It can help improve the gut microbiome. With this in mind, I ensure that my diet is rich in fibrous foods, including grains such as oats, barley, whole wheat, buckwheat and flax, as well as fruits and vegetables.

I avoid foods rich in fat and sodium, as they can cause dysbiosis, a microbial imbalance such as an impaired microbiota. For this reason I also avoid most processed foods or foods in which antibiotics may be used in the food supply chain.

Milk may contain bacteria such as M. avium paratuberculosis that resist pasteurization so—just to be careful—I like to boil milk before adding to coffee or tea.

For additional health reasons, I also don’t drink alcoholic beverages or soda, do not add sugar to my coffee and tea, and drink only moderate amounts of fruit juice. I always eat a healthy breakfast to energize my day.

How about hygiene practices?

Most people brush their teeth twice a day, but they often fail to clean their tongue. In fact, the oral microbiome can influence several diseases, including pneumonia and arthritis. Therefore, I always make sure to clean my tongue regularly.

If I have only a few dishes to wash after a meal, I hand wash them, because the dishwasher strips away all microbes. The very low levels of microbes that remain on hand washed dishes can actually help keep the immune system alert and active. It’s a small thing we can all do to make a difference

Sunil Thomas, PhD, is an immunology investigator and a research assistant professor at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research, part of Main Line Health. He specializes in translational research, which applies findings from basic science into medical practice.