Dr. Robynne Chutkan, MD, gastroenterologist, joined Lisa Davis on Naturally Savvy Radio to discuss tips for creating a healthy microbiome. [The following transcript has been edited for print.]
Participants: Lisa Davis, MPH
Robynne Chutkan, MD
Introduction: Your organic search is over, here’s Naturally Savvy with health experts Andrea Donsky and Lisa Davis.
Lisa Davis: Hi, I’m Lisa Davis. Andrea is away today. I’ve been hearing this word a lot lately, Microbiome. We’ve got the wonderful Dr. Robynne Chutkan, MD and she is one of the most recognizable gastroenterologists working in America today and she’s going to tell us all about the microbiome and in particular the top five tips for creating a healthy one. Hello Dr. Chutkan welcome to the show.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: Hi, thank you for so much having me.
Lisa Davis: I should mention I recently got two wonderful dogs, they are almost two and they are the loves of my life and that is one of the tips. So we’ll get to that. But first of all, what is the definition? What is a microbiome?
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: The microbiome refers to the trillions, about a hundred trillion in all, of microbes that live in and on the human body, mostly bacteria. But it also includes viruses, fungi, protozoa, those little one-celled organism, and worms or parasites, so we’re talking about lots of microbes.
Lisa Davis: I mentioned one has to do with pets, why don’t you start with that one.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: Number one is get a pet. Congratulations on your two new additions to the family.
Lisa Davis: Thank you. They’re so much fun.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: We have one ourselves. We have Hurricane Hugo. Some of the data show that households that have pets, that kids have fewer infection and take fewer antibiotics and that’s because pets bring a little dirt into our lives which we’re now finding out is actually a good thing. Part of the problem with why we see some many people with over-reactive immune systems and autoimmune disease is because they don’t have enough exposure to germs and the immune system doesn’t get adequately trained to distinguish between friend and foe. So getting a pet is a great way to help to train your immune system.
Lisa Davis: Well I take my dogs to the woods every single day so we’ve got a lot of dirt running around our house.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: Excellent!
Lisa Davis: Another tip is avoid antibiotic use unless absolutely necessary.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: Yes. There’s no question that Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in the 1930s is still one of the greatest contributions to modern medicine and it saved countless millions of lives. But we’re in a different era now, we’re in an era of over-diagnosis and over-treatment and we’re using these drugs to treat minor illnesses or things that they have no efficacy against at all. For example, the flu is caused by the influenza virus, and antibiotics are antibacterial. They don’t have any affect at all against viruses. But it’s the first thing that people reach for if they have a minor illness. It will resolve on its own even if they have a viral illness, again which antibiotics are ineffective.
So we’re overusing antibiotics. Conservative estimates suggests that half of all antibiotic use in this country is unnecessary and what it leads to is resistance to antibiotics and the creation of super bugs. But it also leads to damage to the microbiome. Just five days of a broad spectrum antibiotic can remove about a third of your gut bacteria and there’s no guarantee that those species are all going to come back. So judicious use of antibiotics, avoiding them whenever necessary is a really important part of having a healthy microbiome.
Lisa Davis: Another one of your tips is eat lots of fibrous plants. You mentioned artichoke and asparagus, are there any others that you’d recommend?
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: Yes, so all of the foods that are high in inulin are what really seems to get our microbes humming. So lentils are great, oats are great, resistant starches like green banana. I boil the green banana and then mash them and eat them like mashed potatoes and they’re delicious. You can use green banana flour for baking. These are all foods that are great for the microbiome. Also fermented foods, because fermented foods like sauerkraut, which is fermented cabbage, really does both; you’re getting the fiber from the cabbage which is helping to feed your gut bacteria and then during the process of fermentation, you’re enhancing the lactobacillus population in the cabbage. So when you eat the sauerkraut you’re getting live bacteria plus great indigestible fiber. So fermented foods such as sauerkraut, these are great foods to be eating for your microbiome.
Lisa Davis: Oh definitely. Now this is one that I need to do: skip the hand sanitizer.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: Oh yes.
Lisa Davis: When I go to the grocery store and they have the sanitizing cloths I always wipe down the cart. Should I just walk right by that?
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: Yes, well you know we’ve been misled to believe that somehow cleanliness is somehow associated with health. Now we’re finding it’s actually just the opposite, we need more dirt in our lives. The problem with hand sanitizers too is that many of them contain a chemical called triclosan which disrupts our endocrine system and can lead to thyroid problems and so on, but it’s also very harmful to bacteria. Most of the bacteria that you would encounter, for example, on a shopping cart handle, are harmless bacteria that don’t pose a threat to you. Now during cold and flu season, just hand washing with warm water and soap is a good idea. But again, keep in mind that hand sanitizers that are antibacterial don’t have any efficacy against virus and flu is caused by a virus. So again, it’s just a little bit of confusion about what we’re actually treating. Washing your hands with warm water and soap and scrubbing, I think the recommendation is for about twenty seconds, or how long it takes to sing happy birthday twice, that dislodges viruses and bacteria that can get trapped in the skin cells and that’s really all you need to do.
Lisa Davis: That is interesting what you just said about the hand sanitizer not getting rid of the flu virus, I think a lot of people think that. I’ve never really thought about it, but I always assumed that I’m protected when I use my hand sanitizer.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: The other thing too, is the best protection against these viruses is having a healthy immune system. How do you get a healthy immune system? By avoiding antibiotics that kill off your gut bacteria which are an integral part of the immune system and by eating lots of plants. Lots of fruits and vegetables. That’s ultimately going to be way more helpful than hand sanitizer.
Lisa Davis: We talked about getting a pet, the last one is plant a garden. We only have about 30 seconds, talk to us about this.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan: Plant a garden so that you can come up close and personal to soil microbes which are incredibly beneficial and you can also grow something that’s green, that’s high in fiber that you can eat. So, that’s another twofer also. Planting a garden, opening the window, just letting a little bit of nature in.
Lisa Davis: This has been so fantastic. I have learned a ton and I’m sure our listeners have as well. Again, I’m speaking with Robynne Chutkan, MD. Her book is The Microbiome Solution. You can follow her @drchutkan, be sure to keep her in mind and check out her great work. So glad you all listened today.