There are more bacteria living on and in us than there are human cells. How does that make you feel? Freaked out? A little sick? Just fine?
We live in a culture now, where we feel like we need to scrub every last germ from every surface and our bodies, to avoid getting sick. But in fact could this be doing more harm than good?
Bacteria live in our guts, on our skin, up our noses, in our navels, in our lungs, on our eyes, amongst other places! We are colonised by many micro-organisms; bacteria, virus, fungi. The ones that do not cause disease are deemed normal flora or normal microbiota.
The human microbiome project took on the task of sequencing the genome of the human microbiota, focusing on the microbiota that normally inhabit the skin, mouth, nose, digestive tract and vagina. In 2012 it published its results and it has revolutionised how we now think about our health.
Our Health is Changing
Diseases such as celiac disease, diabetes, autism, obesity and cancer have all increased since WW11.
In 1975 1:5000 children had autism
Now 1:36 have autism/ 1:8 have ADHD
These figures have accelerated since 2012. By 2035 1:3 children will have autism. There are 25% less organisms in the gut of autistic kids.
Our soil has depleted 10% in vitamins and minerals since WWII and the diversity of microbe sin the soil has decreased
30 million pounds of antibiotics reside in the soil, killing the microbiome of animals and of the soil. Pig manure is now so toxic , it cannot be used as a fertiliser.
Immunity and Our Gut
70% of our immune system resides in the gut lining; the microbiome helps produce vitamins, minerals, neurotransmitters and hormones. Essentially, we feed the microbiome with food and it then feeds us with these essential nutrients. It also helps to keep the gut lining healthy and prevent leaky gut syndrome. In a healthy person, good bacteria outweigh the bad as the food we eat help the good bacteria to proliferate and the bad bacteria (fed by less than healthful food) die. But what happens when you don’t eat so well or you have a chronic condition?
Ok let’s take a couple of scenarios:
Your mum gave birth to you naturally and you were breastfed for the best part of two years . You were never given antibiotics as a child, you played outside most of the time; getting plenty of exercise, you ate a whole food diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, rarely eating fast or processed food. You were happy and your life was relatively stress free, your environmental toxins were limited. When you grew into adulthood, you continued the healthy lifestyle that your parents had instilled in you; you drank alcohol occasionally, you never smoked, you continued to eat a diet rich in fruits and veggies, maybe choosing to avoid animal products altogether, took antibiotics and prescription drugs rarely throughout your life. You managed stress well, meditated, exercised regularly and avoided environmental toxins.
Your mum had you by caesarean section and you were bottle fed on formula. You had a few health scares early on in life and were subsequently given antibiotics a few times in your first three years. Your parents didn’t cook at home much and food was often take-outs or fast food, with limited fruits and veggies. You were a little overweight as a child and you never enjoyed sports; you were subsequently bullied at school and your childhood was not a happy one. As a teenager you were a little depressed and anxious. Into adulthood you turned to alcohol and recreational drugs to make yourself feel better and you’ve been a lifelong smoker. Although you have lost weight from time to time, on the whole you have been overweight and have felt like you have always been on a diet; interspersing fast food with ‘diet’ food, rather than eating for health. You have been sick many times throughout your life, taking many courses of antibiotics. At middle age you now have diabetes type II, high blood pressure (both of which you manage through drugs) and had a cancer scare a few years ago. You still suffer from anxiety and depression.
The microbiome of A and B will be very different. Everything that A does and his life experience has fuelled good bacteria to proliferate and everything that has happened to B has encouraged less than healthy bacteria to grow and inflammation in the body to develop. Inflammation being the basis of chronic conditions. Either person could have changed their microbiome around by changing up their lifestyle, but were probably never advised how or why they should do so. Ninety percent of your health is governed by your lifestyle choices, while only 10% is governed by medical interventions ie emergency treatment/ drugs. Which scenario above looks most like you?
Essentially the gut microbiome is the barometer for the health of your body. Your health and the health of your microbiome is inextricably linked. Problems with the microbiome can be reflected in skin disorders, migraines, allergies, sinusitis and hormonal problems, amongst other chronic conditions. If there is inflammation in the gut, there will be inflammation in the rest of the body.
Here are the major microbiome killers:
Lack of sleep
If you are having chronic health issues, how can you improve your health and heal your gut?
Eat a diet rich in fruit and veggies and plant foods
Eat good fats, don’t eat refined oils
Avoid processed food, sugar, grains, eggs, dairy, refined flour
Minimise alcohol and NSAIDS such as aspirin, paracetamol, ibuprofen
Reduce meat consumption
Get sufficient sleep
Reduce or manage stress
Take regular exercise
Eat fermented foods/ drink
Eat organic foods wherever possible
Don’t eat too much
Avoid chemicals in in the home and in your environment
Give birth naturally and breastfeed (for the health of your children)
Medical and Healthcare Interventions
While we need western medicine to help us when we have an acute infection or are involved in a trauma, on the whole doctors are not trained how to deal with chronic conditions or indeed how to maintain lifelong health and how our diet and lifestyle affect our health directly. Pharmaceutical companies love chronic disease- the most profitable drugs are the ones that don’t cure anything. If you have a chronic condition you are perfect for the drug company’s business model as you will use and buy that drug for a very long time. All of these drugs are detrimental to the microbiome and a vicious cycle ensues.
It can be beneficial to seek out a holistic, naturopathic or functional doctor who can look at your body and health as a whole, conduct the relevant tests and treat you as a whole, especially if you have drawn a blank with your regular doctor or he has you on drugs for an indefinite time period. Consulting with a holistic nutritionist too can also help you to eat better and manage your lifestyle, for better health.