The Microbiome Solution is a stomach-friendly diet plan outlined in the book of the same name, written by the well known gastroenterologist Dr. Robynne Chutkan. She also authored Gutbliss, which explains how microbial populations in our gastrointestinal tract influence our general health. The ‘microbiome’ is the collective term for all the bacteria that live in our digestive tract. Dr. Chutkan finds fault with the modern lifestyle and hygiene practices based on the general assumption that all bacteria are disease causing germs. There are, in fact, numerous good ones living on our skin and in our digestive tract. They actually help us in many different ways, but most importantly by keeping the bad germs under check. Our obsession with cleanliness as well as our modern diet depletes the good bacteria that keep us healthy, which in turn encourages the overgrowth of the harmful bacteria.
According to Dr. Chutkan, imbalances in the microbial populations in the digestive tract adversely affect our metabolism, endocrine system, and immune function, making us more prone to metabolic disorders and hormonal dysfunction. She argues that microbial imbalance is the underlying cause of obesity, diabetes, and many autoimmune diseases, and offers Microbiome Solution as her remedy for all these health problems.
How the Microbiome Solution Works
In the Microbiome Solution, Dr. Chutkan advocates a diet and lifestyle that increases the number and variety of bacteria in our gut. We are quite familiar with probiotic pills and solutions that doctors often prescribe following a course of antibiotics to restore gastrointestinal bacteria. They are usually monocultures containing a single strain of bacteria. Dr. Chutkan advises us to go for natural probiotics like live-culture yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, kefir etc. that help introduce a variety of beneficial bacteria into our gut. In addition to them, we should include prebiotic foods in our diet, which are mainly fiber-rich foods that nurture the microbiome. The bacteria in the intestines ferment the oligosaccharides in these foods, deriving sustenance for themselves and providing us with many useful nutrients. In other words, prebiotics feed the probiotics and they, in turn, keep us healthy.
The Microbiome Solution also includes guidelines for lifestyle modifications that are complementary to the dietary modifications. Going back to nature and getting our hands dirty by working the land and tending to pets and farm animals is the lifestyle she recommends. There’s ample evidence that children growing up in farms have more robust immune systems and generally have fewer allergies compared to their urban counterparts. According to Dr. Chutkan, increasing our exposure to a large number of microbes is the key to health. Her motto is: ‘Live dirty, Eat clean.’ She goes as far as suggesting fecal transplant as a viable technique to restore a severely damaged microbiome.
The ‘rewilding’ process also includes the elimination of chemicals and drugs that destroy the microorganisms that we are meant to coexist with. They include pesticides, antibiotics and antiseptic hand sanitizers that we use all too liberally. Tips on how to avoid antibiotics and how to resolve allergies and disorders of the skin and stomach without drugs are provided. It is also claimed that one can lose weight through this diet.
Is Exercise Involved?
The Microbiome Solution is all about introducing and nurturing a healthy microbial population within our body through dietary modifications. It advocates a healthy lifestyle that goes hand in hand with our natural surroundings. Although there are no clear cut guidelines on exercise as such, yoga, running, weights and other workouts are part of Dr. Chutkan’s routine. Apart from that, you are encouraged to spend as much time outside the home as possible, getting your hands dirty with gardening, tending to farm animals, interacting with pets etc. to expose yourself to a wide variety of microbes. Most importantly, you’re advised to sweat everyday in some way or other.
The Microbial Solution offers wholesome nutrition through a variety of natural foods. A healthy combination of animal-based proteins and high-fiber plant foods––which she calls a ‘veleo’––is recommended. It provides all the necessary nutrients, not only for you, but also for nurturing the bacteria residing in your guts.
The Cost Factor
The main cost of this diet is the book itself, which may cost around $10. The prebiotic and probiotic foods recommended by the Microbiome Solution are accessible and cost effective, especially if you make an effort to grow and prepare at least a few of them. The book provides tips and recipes to help you with that. However, in an urban setting, sourcing chemical-free organic food items may involve extra time and money, since most of the produce available in supermarkets could be loaded with pesticides and antibiotics.
Do Dieters Lose Weight on the Microbiome Solution?
The Microbiome Solution is projected as a long-term solution for obesity and related problems. This is based on the premise that weight gain is an outcome of hormonal dysfunction and other metabolic disorders resulting from microbiome imbalance. Dr. Chutkan claims that dietary modifications that improve gut health can restore proper hormonal function and eliminate eating disorders that lead to weight gain. However, apart from anecdotal evidence, no comprehensive study has proven this claim.
Attempting to manipulate the extremely complex microbiome with diet is nothing but a shot in the dark at best. Good gastrointestinal health may positively influence your weight loss efforts, but it cannot possibly offer any guaranteed weight reduction.
Level of Effort
The Microbiome Solution does not involve a strict diet or calorie restriction. The emphasis is on eating natural and fiber-rich foods and avoiding antibiotics and chemicals that harm the microbiome. Since the diet recommended includes paleo and vegan foods, most people can follow it easily with some modifications to their normal diets. The main effort required is in changing our deep-set attitude towards germs and the idea of cleanliness in general. If you’re a stickler for hygiene and consider hand sanitizers as your constant companion, it may take a lot of convincing to change your ways.
Whether it would be a wise move to lower your hygiene levels is quite another matter. While exposure to a large number of microbes may help increase immunity, it can put you at risk of many infectious diseases. Some of them could even be life threatening. Although the recent increase of autoimmune diseases and antibiotic-resistant superbugs is a real concern, discarding modern hygiene practices may actually backfire. We shouldn’t forget that vaccinations against deadly diseases, use of antibiotics, antiseptics, and insecticides, and pasteurization and other methods of sterilization have protected the modern society from many epidemics like cholera, malaria, yellow fever, and ‘black death’ that killed millions of people in the past. Despite the claims of the Microbiome Solution, one may have to depend on modern drugs and medical care to prevent and treat serious infections.
Although the arguments put forward by the author make sense, the Microbiome Solution seems to be an oversimplification of our complex relationship with the microbes in and around us. There is some evidence that the gastrointestinal flora influence our health, and that a diet and lifestyle that promotes beneficial bacterial colonies may help us. However, it is naïve to think that all our problems can be resolved by cultivating a healthy microbiome. As a matter of fact, it is hard to define exactly what kind of a microbial combination is ‘healthy’ and what constitutes ‘unhealthy’ because the microbiome is continuously changing and evolving. Sometimes, bacterial species considered beneficial may turn rogue and attack their host. Almost all bacteria can cause serious problems if they enter the bloodstream through breaks in the intestinal lining.
As far obesity is concerned, it is doubtful whether any significant weight loss can be achieved through the Microbiome Solution alone. At best, it can be used as an adjunct therapy along with a practical weight loss program that includes calorie restriction and exercise.