Tending to microbiome health this season

"Diet and skincare tips for a healthy microbiome" with images of little microbes and a magnifying glass.
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Winter can be a shock to the system. Yes, it’s true, some of us live for the frigid temperatures and the snow and ice outside. But for the rest of us, we’d rather hunker down and wait for the Spring thaw. Whichever you prefer, though, the dramatic shift outdoors can have an impact on your body, including the micro-environments that your countless friendly microbes call home. That’s right, we’re talking about your microbiome(s).

You might have heard the term “microbiome” before in reference to your gut. Did you know that you have microbiomes throughout your body? Just as there are friendly, co-dependent microbes that love the airless environment of your colon, there are distinct communities alive and at work all throughout your gastrointestinal tract. They live in your mouth, throat, stomach, and small intestine. There are also discrete communities at work on your skin, in your armpits, elbows, knees, and toes… the list goes on.

Research on human microbiomes is relatively new. However, researchers have already determined that microbiomes have a large impact on our health and wellbeing. And we, in turn, have a big role in the health and diversity of each micro-environment. Changes to our surroundings, diet, and habits in the winter can cause our microbiomes to change. Overall, this is a good thing—they adapt to their new environment, helping us adapt and thrive. There are a few things to be mindful of, though, to make sure we’re being helpful!

#1: Our Diet

Our gut microbiome health is key to healthy bowel function. In addition, research shows the microbes in our gut can impact our minds through the gut-brain axis. It is to our benefit, then, to make sure we’re feeding our friends good food. With winter comes holidays and special occasions filled with tempting treats—not to mention an uptick in our appetite. It’s important to pay attention to the food choices we make, especially when surrounded by indulgent foods.

An essential part of a healthy diet for our gut is insoluble fiber. Fiber is found in plant foods including fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Insoluble fiber is used by good microbes to produce helpful compounds called short-chain fatty acids. These feed the cells in our intestine and lower the intestinal pH to limit the overgrowth of “bad” microbes. Fermented foods, like yogurt, kombucha, and raw sauerkraut, can also contribute healthy microbes to our gut. Remember, it’s fine to have an occasional slice of pie for dessert, just be sure to have that fiber-rich banana-and-oatmeal bowl for breakfast tomorrow!

#2: Our Skincare

Our skin does a pretty great job of taking care of itself, producing natural moisturizers to keep itself healthy. Microbiomes work in synchrony with the skin to provide an immuno-defensive barrier to the outside world. In the winter, however, many of us will experience dry skin due to the harsh, dry air of our surroundings. This can be made worse by frequent handwashing, using hot water when washing or bathing, and excessive use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. All of these actions can also wash away microbes from the skin’s surface.

Dry skin can compromise the barrier ability of our skin and can be harmful to the microbiome that helps protect it. This altered environment can also shift the kind of microbes that populate our skin, and could lead to irritation beyond that of mild dryness. The most important thing you can do to care for your skin’s microbiome is to be mindful of activities that could lead to excessive dryness, limiting them when you can:

  • Instead of using hand sanitizer at home, try washing your hands with mild unscented hand soap (not antibiotic!) when you can. Sanitizers and disinfectants are important to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so continue to use them as needed in these situations.
  • When showering, use warm water instead of hot.
  • Research has found that, in individuals with chronic skin conditions, using unscented moisturizers with oat-based active ingredients significantly improves skin irritation and its microbiome. This has not been studied in healthy skin, but it may be good for general skin microbiome health.

In the end, you can rest assured that your microbiomes are not delicate—they are capable of protecting us as well as themselves. These tips simply give you a couple of tools to help you help your microbes this winter and keep everyone healthy.

Source: This post was written by Flora Denton, dietetic intern at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, working with Kristin Bogdonas, nutrition and wellness educator, serving Henry, Mercer, Rock Island and Stark Counties.

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