Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health
By Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, PhDs
(Please see our Affiliate Disclosure for linking policies.)
While showing its age a bit, The Good Gut book is one of the best overviews of the human microbiome I have come across, including the science, the history, and actionable items you can employ to improve and maintain your own microbiome and in so doing, your own gut health.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
The Good Gut is part biology course, part history lesson, part personal narrative, and part health guide, striking a surprisingly good balance among them all.
It benefits from having been written by genuine pioneers in the field of microbiome science, Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, both research scientists who are still able to write in a style totally accessible to the lay public. They don’t speak down to the reader, nor do they get lost in the weeds of arcane microbiology jargon but rather treat the reader with respect while weaving an informative and understandable narrative.
As I mentioned out the outset, it is a little dated, but suffers very little for it. Yes, it repeats the since discredited claim that the bacteria that make up your microbiome (technically, microbiota) outnumber your own human cells 10-1, but it still holds up well overall for having gone to print several years ago.
There are some odd old-fashioned and frankly wince-inducing moments, such as the passage in which the authors, noting biologically-induced changes in behavior, describe the “nesting instincts” of an expectant mother as including, “Neatly stacking newly laundered baby clothes” and “spending endless hours meandering through stores assembling an arsenal of baby swings, car seats, and bouncy chairs.”
In fairness, it was co-written by the authors, so presumably Erica Sonnenburg was comfortable with this description.
Regardless, my complaints are few and mild with this work. If you are looking for an introduction to the world of the human microbiome, you will be particularly well-served with this book, and even if you are already familiar with the topic, you will come away with an even better understanding of the subject matter.
Both authors, a husband-and-wife team, are true believers in the power of the microbiome, have dedicated their careers to its study, and live their personal lives with a true commitment to their convictions.
At one point in the book, they describe how they were concerned that their infant daughter, who had been delivered via C-section and given antibiotics the first two days of her life (both considered to potentially cause long-term damage to the microbiome,) opened up capsules of the probiotic Lactobacillus GG and sprinkled the contents on her lips.
While those of us who largely agree with their premise might applaud those actions as a sign of genuine dedication and commitment (and I do), I have no choice but to tick the Hype Meter over a notch to recognize that there is potential for unintentional bias to creep into their work.
That said, the book is meticulously documented with End Notes, a bibliography, and index.
Clever Turns of Phrase
“If your gut bacteria were able to walk through your average grocery store tasked with finding something to eat, they would face the equivalent of humans trying to find food in a Home Depot.” (Discussing the paucity of fiber and prebiotics that is a hallmark of the typical western diet.)
“If you pass small stools you have to have large hospitals.” Attributed to Dr. Denis Burkitt, a surgeon who spent time in rural African hospitals where he noticed the high-fiber diets and large stools common among the population.
“Gut tourists,” the term given common probiotics which typically do not take up permanent residence in the gut but rather act as transients (offering benefits along the way) simply passing on through.
The names of some probiotics are actually just made-up marketing terms intended to appeal to consumers such as a popular line of Activia yogurt called “bifidus regularis” which is simply their proprietary strain of “Bifidobacterium animalis.” this is something we will keep a careful watch out for going forward.
The Good Gut first introduced me to the concept of “MACs,” or “Microbiota Accessible Carbohydrates.” These are complex carbohydrates, usually soluble fiber, that can be used as fuel (fermented) by the microorganisms present in the colon. The distinction is that while all fiber typically offers important health benefits in various ways, not all of them can be considered genuine prebiotics.
The Good Gut is full of helpful information that you can immediately apply to your own life.
If you are new to the microbiome, you will come away with cautions against the overuse of antibiotics, the importance of human breast milk (and natural deliveries) when possible, the notion that you can be “too clean” and too hygienic, potentially under educating your immune system as to what does, and does not, warrant an inflammatory response, and a slew of microbiome-friendly meal plans and recipes.
While I was already familiar with much of this advice, I still came away with additional tips.
The authors describe a point at which they decided to take a close look at their family’s diet, and while they thought they had been eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, they were surprised to find they were wrong. They had in fact fallen into a rut, eating the same things, and turning to the ease and convenience of processed food more than they had realized.
It had been a while since I had kept a food diary (this was just prior to my launching the MicrobioME Project), and so I was motivated to do so again.
And sure enough, I had some surprises as well. I was particularly surprised to find that my sugar intake (the preferred sustenance of many pathogens) had crept up over the intervening years, even though I thought I had been cutting down. I am now in the process of slowly trying to whittle that down.
As I mentioned earlier, the book also introduced me to the notion of MACs (Microbiota Accessible Carbohydrates) and in so doing, inspired me to focus on prebiotics. In a sense, this book is in large part why I am currently doing a “Prebiotic Case” for my MicrobioME Project.
And I have every intention of trying out some of those recipes. Stay tuned!
Quick Note on The Good Gut Audiobook
The audiobook edition is excellent, and the narrator, Marc Cashman,
a particularly good fit for the subject matter. At eight-and-a-half hours, it is not a quick listen, but something you could easily get through in a week if you have a long commute. (I polished off most of it over a weekend trip.)
Before You Go…
If you are interested in purchasing The Good Gut book, in any form, it is readily available through our link to Amazon, and while this does not cost you anything extra, by clicking through here, you help support the work we do at Microbiome Bulletin, and for that we are deeply grateful.
And please do check out our full Affiliate Disclosure at your convenience.
If you have any questions, comments, or observations, or experiences with this book (such as your own surprises or actionable advice) please leave them in the comments below.
And if you’d like to see us review a book, we are always open to suggestions!
Take care and we hope to see you again soon!