The Gut Microbiome
Our bones, hair, skin, muscle, and all other components of the human body are made up of about 10 trillion cells. The amount of bacteria that live within us? 100 Trillion. TRILLIONS I SAY! We’re technically more bacteria than we are human, which basically means we are all aliens, but I digress.
Seriously though, that’s pretty significant. Have you ever had a “gut feeling”? Well that can actually be explained because our gut hosts the majority of these critters (note we also have bacteria on our skin). Scientists have also now identified a “Gut-Brain axis” which is a communication pathway between the brain and our gut microbiome. Some even refer to our gut as our “second brain” although some may even go as far as saying our brains are our second brains, and our gut is our real brain. The majority of the serotonin we produce in our bodies, is made in the gut. Nutrients like vitamin K, and vitamin B12 are also made in the gut.
Our gut microbiome, or the community of bacteria that live within us, have been found to regulate not only our digestion, but also our immunity, stress, mood, cognition, and a host of other things. That’s right, these microscopic busy bodies are not just along for the ride. Alternatively, dysregulation of our microbiome has been linked to things like irritable bowel syndrome, weight gain, diabetes, and even disorders like depression, Alzheimers, dementia, and schizophrenia.
While some of these disorders or conditions are influenced by our genetics, epigenetics also play a large role in their prevention or in delaying them. Factors such as diet, stress, and lifestyle factors are known to affect whether or not certain genes are expressed. Meaning even if you’re predisposed to having high cholesterol or high blood pressure for example, if you manage your diet properly, and exercise, these diseases may never manifest. You know what else these factors affect? You guessed it, your gut microbiome!
This leads me to wonder. Why do we resort to drugs or pharmaceuticals as our first line of defense against disease? In America we spend TRILLIONS of dollars on healthcare. In 2014, the U.S. spent $2.6 trillion, and in 2015 we spent $3.2 trillion . The pharmaceutical industry is also a trillion dollar industry, and the supplement industry, is a billion dollar industry. We spend more money than any other country on health, yet our rates of chronic disease, mental health disorders, infant mortality, and life expectancy are staggering. We give no regard to what we put in our bodies, and what we expose ourselves to, but rather try to mask our symptoms with more drugs. So are we doomed? No. But to start healing, we have to do so from the inside out. With your microbiome.
Factors to Consider for Gut Health
I don’t necessarily believe in “good” or “bad” bacteria. I’m sure you’ve seen things like E. Coli outbreaks on the news or people dying from drinking water contaminated with certain bacterial strains. Those are very real things, and I definitely advise caution when consuming certain foods or liquids. For example, drinking water from streams can be dangerous because of animal fecal matter contaminating the source which can be very deadly. Although I call B.S on raw cookie dough being harmful…But in actuality, some of those dangerous bacteria reside in our guts, and are necessary to maintain our health. However, our health issues are exacerbated when these bacteria overpopulate our gut, when we have a deficiency in beneficial bacteria, or more commonly when we harm our gut. Below are some commonplace influences on our microbiome, that we give little thought to, but should actually rethink.
No I’m not advising you not to use soap. However, using excessive amounts of anti-microbial or anti-bacterial soaps damages our microbiome, while making potentially harmful strains more resilient. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are in accordance that “there isn’t enough science to show that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water” . And what makes the matter worse, is that many of these soaps contain chemicals such as Triclosan, which is labeled as a pesticide by the EPA. According to the FDA, “laboratory studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Some data shows this resistance may have a significant impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments, such as antibiotics. Keep it simple, use normal hand soap, or liquid soap free of any harsh chemicals. I like the brands Mrs. Meyers, Dr. Bronner’s, and Alaffia.
This can be a controversial topic, but simply stating the facts, antibiotics are made to kill bacteria. They essentially wipe out all bacteria in your gut, both “good” and “bad.” In certain instances, antibiotics are absolutely necessary, however I believe they are overused. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “antibiotics save lives, but any time antibiotics are used, they can cause side effects and lead to antibiotic resistance. About 30 percent of antibiotics, or 47 million prescriptions, are prescribed unnecessarily in doctors’ offices and emergency departments in the United States” . If you do end up using antibiotics, it would probably be beneficial to use pre/pro-biotics afterward to help re-establish a healthy gut microbiome.
Optimizing Gut Health through Nutrition
With newfound research bringing gut health to light, I’m sure you’ve also seen the word probiotic around. Probiotics are strains of beneficial bacteria that populate your gut. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt are rich sources of probiotic bacteria that can help increase your gut health. Probiotic supplements introduce certain beneficial strains to your gut, claiming that they will populate your gut.
My qualm with probiotic supplements, is that it’s not guaranteed that these particular strains are beneficial to everyone. Certain strains may be good for one person, but not for someone else. Moreover, how do we know what quantity we need? Do we want to overpopulate with certain strains? Do we even know what strains already exist in our gut microbiome? Many of these supplements also contain strains that aren’t even alive, which defeats the purpose. And if they are alive, these probiotics are susceptible to dying due to heat, enzymes, and stomach acid long before they reach their destination. Instead of reaching for a probiotic supplement right away, I advise obtaining your probiotics through whole foods sources, and varying them often.
These are foods that feed your microbiome. Think of them as fertilizer for beneficial bacteria. They are nutrients that allow these bacteria to grow and thrive. They often come in the form of fiber, from sources such as green (unripe) bananas, apples, etc. Prebiotics are more resilient than probiotics in the sense that they aren’t affect by heat, stomach acid, or enzymes to the same extent. Consuming a combination of prebiotics and probiotics is a good strategy to employ in increasing overall health.
Go with your Gut
Science surrounding these fascinating critters is constantly emerging, and there are even health protocols you can utilize to evaluate your gut. Companies like Viome can even evaluate your gut microbiome are revolutionizing the field. We cannot truly say we fully understand everything there is to know about bacteria and the microbiome, but I truly believe that this will be the future of the health field. We evolved to have a mutualistic relationship between bacteria. They were around long before we were, and they’ll probably be around long after. But while our microbiome is hard at work protecting our bodies, it seems like we are hard at work suppressing their ability to do so optimally. The science surrounding the links between health, chronic illness, and our microbiome is still nebulous, and this blog only scratches the surface on what there is to be said about the microbiome. But there’s one thing that’s certain, a healthy microbiome is essential for a healthy body. Take care of your microbiome and it will take care of you.
 “Health, United States, 2015” (PDF). www.cdc.gov. November 14th, 2018.
 https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm378393.html. November 14th, 2018.