“When the diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; when the diet is correct, medicine is of no need.” –Ayurvedic proverb
In last week’s post, I talked about how the health of our gut is central to the health of our bodies. This week, let’s look at something called the microbiome and how it is critical to our health and how our diets and lifestyle either enhance, maintain, or undermine it, and why you should care about it.
So what is the microbiome?
The microbiome refers to the approximately 100 trillion microbes made up of over 2,000 different strains of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live upon and, mostly within us. This community outnumbers our human cells (those cells with our unique DNA profile) by about 10 to one. In addition, the number of genes in all of those microbes is roughly 100 times greater than all of the genes in our human cells. The majority of these microbes live in our distal digestive tract and collectively weigh up to 5 lbs which if the microbiome was considered an organ would make it the largest multi-functional “organ” in our body!
We are also finding that our individual microbiomes are very different from one another, and it appears that our own unique balance and diversity of organisms influences our health.
Why is the microbiome important?
The bacterial flora in our gut play a crucial role in influencing our biology all over our body. Some of their key roles are:
- Digestion: they aid in breaking down our food, helping us absorb minerals, synthesizing Vit K and other nutrients
- Detoxification: they help with metabolizing our drugs and detoxifying us
- Metabolism: they help manage our metabolism and prevent metabolic diseases, including obesity and related conditions, such as type 2 diabetes.
- Immunity: a healthy gut bacterial flora helps our immune system mature after we’re born, and they keep our immune system healthy and recognizing self versus non-self. How likely we are to fight off a respiratory infection or how fast an auto-immune disease progresses, or even how well an immunotherapy works can all be influenced by what lives in our microbiota and how well they are functioning.
- Central nervous system: there is evidence that neuro-degenerative diseases and even moods and behavior can be modified by changing the gut microbiota.
Emerging evidence is linking the deterioration of our microbiome to many health related illnesses such as allergies, food sensitivities, auto-immune disorders, asthma, mood and behavioral illnesses, metabolic disorders such as obesity, as well as neuro-degenerative diseases just to name a few.
How does the microbiome get out of balance?
Drastic changes have occurred in our microbiomes over the past 40-50 years due to 4 main factors:
- Rise in rate of C-section deliveries – The birth rate from C-sections is now 1 in every 3 births. This is important since our GI tracts are sterile when we are in utero and we inherit our intestinal microbiota at birth from our mothers as we move through the vaginal canal. If this doesn’t happen (as in the case of a C-section delivery), our microbiota has to be populated by other means which will alter the variety of bacteria that will populate the gut.
- Decline in breast feeding – there are indigestible carbohydrates in breast milk that specifically feed the microbiota in the infant gut to encourage it to bloom.
- Diet – particularly from the increased consumption of sugar and highly processed foods, the decrease of dietary fiber, and eating foods we are intolerant toward have all had a deleterious effect on the changes in our microbiomes.
- Overuse of antibiotics – both from medical treatments as well as antibiotics given to our food supply. “Anti” biotics do just that, their job is to kill bacteria. The problem is that they do not just kill the bacteria causing that ear infection or respiratory infection. They kill both good and bad bacteria in the gut too. This decimates the bacterial flora in our gut and significantly deteriorates the diversity of healthy gut flora that is needed for optimal health.
When there is an imbalance in your gut flora caused by too few “good” bacteria and an overgrowth of bad bacteria, yeast, and parasites, this is called “dysbiosis” which can lead to “leaky gut” and systemic chronic inflammation. Check out this great article by Dr. Sarah Gottfried to learn more about dysbiosis and see if you have any of the symptoms.
How do you restore gut health?
The good news is that we can repair our microbiota through diet and lifestyle changes. Here are a few tips to get you started…
- Remove any irritants to the gut by exploring an elimination diet, using less antibiotics, and using less refined, processed, and manufactured foods
- Replace – digestive enzymes (I take these) and HCl Acid (I use this Apple Cider Vinegar to improve stomach acid)
- Re-inoculate – this is where probiotics are key! Probiotics do not repopulate the gut like many believe. They “feed” the good bacteria you have and “weed” out the bad bacteria. So in a sense they are more like a prebiotic for our own healthy gut flora. I take this one but this one is good too. There are also some future possibilities in medicine of re-inoculating a person’s microbiota using fecal transplants. Yes you heard me correctly – just don’t think about that one for too long!
- Repair – use nutrients to repair like a glutamine supplement, eat more natural whole foods, and increase consumption on a daily basis of probiotic-rich foods such as fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi. A great website to make fermented foods yourself is www.perfectpickler.com.
As more research is done on the microbiome, the healing potential that will come from a better understanding of this complex internal ecosystem is vast. Based on what we know now, it is clear that everything we consume is, technically, a “prebiotic”; that is, material that will either enhance, maintain, or undermine the health of our microbiome. This is exciting as it is yet another valuable reminder that informs our daily choices around how we live and, especially, what we eat.
If you are interested in learning more about the microbiota, check out this book, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long Term Health by Drs. Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, PhD. This book includes recipes and a menu plan to help nourish your microbiota as well as safe alternatives to antibiotics, and dietary and lifestyle advice to protect and enhance your microbiome. Have more questions or want a complimentary wellness consultation? Click here to contact me.