wo-thirds of adults in America are living with persistent gut problems like gas, bloating, and abdominal pain, according to a recent study from MDVIP, a national network of primary care doctors (1). The culprit: Researchers suspect a Western diet, which is high in processed foods, saturated fats, and excess sugars, could be wreaking havoc on the diversity of our gut microbiome—the number of microbes that live in our digestive system, supporting our metabolic and immune function (2).
“In people with diminished diversity, we see more gut health issues,” Vincent Pedre, M.D., says on the Hone In with Saad Alam podcast. “We’re still learning how we can create (and repair) that diversity.”
However, the future solution for a healthier and more diverse gut microbiome might be hidden in the past. Researchers like Pedre are zooming in on one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes—the Hadza—to find out how environmental factors like diet, antibiotic availability, hygiene practices, and toxin exposure can shape your gut microbiome.
Dr. Pedre explains how long it really takes to heal your gut. Plus, exactly what lifestyle factors could make or break chronic gut inflammation—impacting your risk of chronic disease—on the Hone In podcast.
What We Can Learn From the Hadza Tribe
The Hadza tribe, a small protected community in Tanzania, is virtually free of conditions like diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and dementia—despite limited access to medical care.
“The Hadza are basically a human time capsule. For 95 percent of our history, we were hunter-gatherers,” Pedre tells Alam. “It’s only in the last couple of thousands of years that we started domesticating plants and animals and leaving our hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”
While we probably won’t be returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle anytime soon, Pedre notes a few key findings from the Hadza that could improve our gut microbiomes.
The benefits of a hunter-gatherer diet
The Hadza hunter-gatherer diet includes five main foods: tubers (like yams), berries, meat, baobab, and honey (3). This unprocessed diet is high in fiber, essential vitamins, and fats—which may contribute to a healthy gut microbiome.
In fact, a 2014 study found that the Hadza have higher levels of microbial richness and biodiversity than control groups from urban Italy and rural farming communities in Africa (4). This implies that even small agricultural communities aren’t getting the same microbiome benefits as true hunter-gatherers, even if their diets also mostly include unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and meats.
So, how can you get some of the gut health benefits of a hunter-gatherer diet in modern society?
The trendy paleo diet is packed with lean meats, seeds, nuts, fish, eggs, fruits, and vegetables—mimicking what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate before making the switch to farming. A 2019 analysis in the journal PLoS One notes that the paleo diet may increase diversity in the gut microbiome, but further studies are needed to test this theory (5).
EAT BETTER, LIVE LONGER
Redefining good vs. bad bacteria
If you’ve scanned the aisles of a health food store for a probiotic, you’ve probably seen bottles touting strains of “good bacteria” that support your gut health. But what makes a bacteria “good” or “bad”? According to Pedre, research on the Hadza tribe suggests that it depends on the environment and the individual.
“The Hadza have some bugs that would probably make you extremely sick. They are what we would consider bad bugs, like a treponema, which is the bacteria that causes syphilis,” Pedre explains. “And yet it doesn’t cause any manifestations of the disease in them.”
Turns out: treponema is great at breaking down plant fibers, which benefits the gut health of the Hadza, who eat a very high fiber diet (6).
The impact of over-medication
Having access to modern medical interventions—like antibiotics and pain medication—is a privilege for many. But overusing these drugs could have a negative impact on the gut microbiome.
A 2023 study on children in low- to middle-income countries found that antibiotic use reduced gut microbiome diversity, leading to a higher risk of antimicrobial-resistant infections (7). The study’s authors suggest that antibiotics should be further regulated—and Pedre agrees.
“I think there’s a lot of uninformed use of antibiotics that are decimating people’s gut microbiome,” Pedre tells Alam. “That leads to a whole host of gut problems that then lead to a whole host of body-wide issues.”
While you have to be prescribed antibiotics for a diagnosed infection in the United States, Pedre says that certain over-the-counter medications like Tylenol and ibuprofen may also impact your gut microbiome (8).
Pedre’s advice: Avoid taking gut-disrupting medication unless deemed necessary by your doctor, and make other lifestyle tweaks to improve your microbiome.
“Take out inflammatory foods, avoid vegetable oils, avoid processed foods, avoid food dyes, avoid eating too much sugar, and avoid excessive alcohol,” Pedre suggests.
If you have to take an antibiotic, talk to your doctor about adding probiotics to your supplement stack to help repair your gut after you finish the course of treatment.