There is a complex relationship between our overall health and what is referred to as our ‘Microbiome’. Our bodies are filled with many Trillions of micro-organisms (Microbes), including a wide variety of bacteria, viruses and fungi, all with different functions and agendas. Humans and Microbes have a commensal relationship with these organisms whereby we rely on them for certain aspects of our health. These Microbes make up our ‘Microbiome’. Scientists are just beginning to study the relationship between the Microbes in our bodies and their impact on our health, which is described well in this NPR production called ‘The Invisible Universe of The Human Microbiome’. A more detailed discussion of the Microbiome and its role in human health has been provided by Dr. Natasha Campbell in a previous article (“Food is the Best Medicine”).
I have been working to get my head around what is understood about this relationship today so that I can (a) understand it for myself as a layman, (b) communicate it clearly and simply to others, and (c) use this knowledge to guide aspects of my own health regime. I have tried to summarize what I have learned in this article.
To give you an idea of the scale of these Microbes, the average adult has between 2 and 3 kilograms of these Microbes in their bodies at any one time. Adding up the total number of genes in our bodies, the ratio would be approximately 90% Microbes and 10% human cells. In this sense, we are a vessel for these Microbes and our health is inextricably linked with them. For this reason, it is critically important for us to understand this relationship as best we can. Based on the amount of research being undertaken right now on the subject, it seems there are a lot of people who agree, including many doctors and scientists.
Microbes are the oldest form of life on Earth and are estimated to have appeared in the Earth’s oceans about 3.5 billion years ago. Microbes are first transferred from mother to child in the birth canal. The Microbiome is further enhanced through breast milk from the mother. Children who are delivered through Cesarean Section and who are not breast fed begin life with serious deficiencies in their Microbiomes. Over time, the foods we ingest add to our and influence our Microbiome, which evolves over our lifetimes. Studies have shows that the composition of the Microbes in our bodies is very quickly affected by the foods we eat, with notable changes occurring within 24 hours of a change in diet. Our Microbiome is individualistic and is believed to be like a fingerprint or a blood type; however, microbial composition appears to be similar within families.
Within and on our bodies are a variety of microbial ‘Flora’ (or regions where they are found), including our mouths, armpits, and forearms, amongst other locations. The center of this microbial universe is in our guts, where approximately 85% of all the Microbes in our bodies live. These microbes make up our “Gut Flora”. The purpose of the Microbes in our Gut Flora include but are not limited to:
- Ensures we digest and absorb our foods properly; an unhealthy Gut Flora can lead to nutrition deficiency and leave the body starving of nutrients (even if you are eating three meals a day).
- Keeps our immune system well-balanced and working properly;
- Ensures that the gut lining is in good shape and does not let unwanted substances through into our blood stream, including toxins harmful Microbes, and/or partially digested foods (which our bodies also treat with hostility).
When the Gut Flora is unhealthy and the Microbes in our bodies are out of balance, all of these functions begin to fail. If there is an imbalance in our Gut Flora, autoimmunity results, including diseases like Diabetes, MS, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Psoriasis (amongst others). When the Gut Wall is damaged, it is like a sieve and allows materials to pass through into the blood stream that should not be there making us sick.
The goal is to have a preponderance of healthy bacteria (in the majoirty), which keep bad bacteria in check. Probiotics keep harmful bacteria in check and do not allow them to do any harm. Good bacteria live alongside the bad, some even downright pathogenic Microbes, which we also need. Probiotics employ harmful bacteria to our benefit in digestion and the conversion of foods into beneficial nourishment for our bodies. When the Gut Flora is damaged, the pathogens take over and start dominating, causing all kinds of ailments, which we are only beginning to understand.
A perforated Gut Wall is typically accompanied / caused by imbalances in the Microbes in the Gut Flora. An unhealthy Gut Flora cannot digest foods properly and leaves foods partially digested. These partially digested foods / proteins can seep through the Gut Wall into the blood stream. These partially digested foods are attacked because they are not seen as food but as a foreign proteins. The effect of this process makes people sick. This is referred to as a “Food Intolerance” or “Food Allergy”. The first manifestation of an unhealthy Gut Flora in children is allergies. The body becomes unable to respond to its environment including things like pollen, dust, dandruff from animals and industrial chemicals.
Probiotics have been shown to (amongst other consequences):
- Counteract inflammation and control the growth of disease-causing bacteria;
- Produce vitamins, absorb minerals and eliminate toxins;
- Control asthma and reduce risk of allergies;
- Benefit your mood and mental health; and
- Normalize your weight.
Beginning in the Post WWII era, we have been adopting policies and practices that have been literally assaulting our Microbiomes (including the Gut Flora), not only through Cesarean Sections and bottle feeding (or a lack of breastfeeding), but most seriously through antibiotics. Medicine post-WWII has taken an approach to prescribe antibiotics to treat many ailments. Until recently, it was believed that antibiotics had no ill effects on humans. Bacteria, viruses and fungi were seen as the cause of many ailments and no harm could be done by eradicating them, which antibiotics do most effectively. As a result, doctors have been quick to prescribe antibiotics at ever-increasing rates; in fact it was seen as the safest approach. The problem with antibiotics is that they annihilate all Microbes in the body. Unfortunately for us, we are now beginning to learn about the important role that this bacteria plays in our health, and we have been doing everything in our power to kill them at ever-increasing rates.
The deterioration of our Microbiomes comes not just from the antibiotics prescribed to us by doctors when we are sick. The commercial food industry routinely uses antibiotics, which are then passed to people through food. This is a large topic and will be addressed in another article. Scientists are also learning that gut health is passed from one generation to the next. As a baby’s Microbiome is first populated by Microbes from the mother’s birth canal, any deficiency is then passed to the next generation, thereby exacerbating these problems. Finally, the birth control pill also has a deleterious effect on the health of the Microbiome.
According to this article on the subject of “The Importance of Microbial Diversity in Gut Health and Disease”, the Microbes found in your gut play a major role in our health, both mental and physical (including your brain, skin, mood, weight, etc.). The result of an imbalance in these Microbes extends far beyond our digestive system. Recent research is indicating that kids with learning disabilities have damaged Gut Flora.
Armed with this understanding, what can we do to promote better health in our bodies and live longer, happier, more productive lives? The approach we are taking is as follows:
- Eating only naturally produced foods that have not been processed.
- Avoiding ingesting chemicals, most notably antibiotics. If we had to due to a serious illness, we would take immediate measures to reinforce the Probiotics in our bodies thereafter.
- Drinking Kefir and ingesting other Probiotic foods on a daily basis to (a) heal our Gut Wall, which has surely been damaged by years of living on this modern diet, and (b) promoting gut health going forward.
Promoting the relationship with the Microbes in our bodies has become an important part of our health regime. Speaking from personal experience, the benefits I have experienced thus far (after about 6 weeks on this regime) include greatly improved sleep and a noticeable improvement in brain function and cognitive ability. In subsequent articles, I will talk about ways in which we can influence the health of our Microbiomes and ourselves through food and other lifestyle habits.