The Most Intimate Relationship You Have: Microbes & Gut Bacteria
You have six pounds of hungry, little demanding microbes swimming around in and on your body. That’s 2+ million bacterial genes in your body compared to the 23,000 genes you have. Your microbes’ DNA outnumber your human DNA by 10 to 1. Think about that for a moment: You have more non-human DNA then human DNA. Way more.
Those bacteria, collectively called microbiome, are getting a lot of media attention these days. And rightfully so.
Researchers are finally coming around to grasp the importance these invisible organisms play in our health — not just physical but emotional as well. It’s exciting to see it start to get covered in mainstream outlets such as the NY Times and Fox News. This topic is something I have been commenting on and pointing towards for years. In fact, I dedicated an entire section to it, “Feeding Your Other Body,” in my book, SuperLife. Despite how counter intuitive it may seem, there are bacteria that are good for us, and we’re only scratching the surface of what microbes do for our health.
“Biologists now believe that much of what makes us human depends on microbial activity,” says Peter Andrey Smith in a June 23, 2015 NY Times article.
It makes sense. “We have more bacteria in our body governing how we feel and what we eat than genes,” said Dr. Segal in a recent Fox News segment on microbes and mood. “If you get your [good] bacteria pissed off or they get infected or if you are under high stress, research is starting to show that it impacts mood. It can lead to more depression and it causes less immune response.” Microbes even can cause food cravings for specific kinds of foods, and send us messages when we’re full. There’s a reason they’ve been given the nickname of your “second brain.”
BUILD YOUR MICROBIOME AND GUT BACTERIA
“The microbe population inside each of us is as disctinctive as a fingerprint. It’s partly a matter of heredity, but mainly it’s about which microbes we consume and encourage, and which ones we don’t,” (SuperLife, 37).
Many of us lack diversity in gut bacteria – up to a quarter of the population, according to a study done at the University of Copenhagen.
Getting subjected to new microbes to create diversity includes everything from walking barefoot, exposing ourselves to more non-sterile environments, getting our hands in the dirt gardening, interacting with animals or having them live in our houses, going easy on the antibiotics by trying to only use them only in severe, medically necessary cases, and eating fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut (to name just a few, keep reading for more). These are just some of the trillions of ways to be exposed to new microorganisms.
We have co-evolved with these organisms since the beginning of time; from the instant we are born, we are colonized with the bacteria living in our mother’s vaginal canal. Rob Knight of the University of Colorado Boulder and Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello of N.Y.U. determined that when newborns swallow bacteria as they travel down the birth canal it helps build their young microbiome, which also helps them later digest breast milk.
Our mother’s breast milk is rich in gut-feeding compounds such as oligosaccharides or prebiotics (food for the beneficial bacteria) to feed the community of cells that make up the infant’s microbiome. C-section babies and those bottle fed don’t get this opportunity, so both will need extra bacteria (probiotics) and dietary support to ensure that their microbiome flourishes. (Note: this is not an argument against either medically necessary C-sections or bottle feeding, just an observation that extra support will be needed in these cases). There are actually ways to inoculate newborns who are born via C sections with bacteria from the mom and dad right at birth by swabbing the vaginal wall of the mother since the baby was not able to pass through naturally. This is very important.
There are many processes and means from the moment we are born that provide a suitable environment for these organisms to live and thrive in and on us. Under the right conditions they repay us by keeping their home — us — in good health. After all, if we get sick, they get sick. It’s a symbiotic interdependent relationship, the most intimate one you will ever have.
Health is not just your flesh and blood. The influence of microbe extend far beyond our G.I tract to the extent they can (and do) influence our mood and behaviors. They influence our immune, digestive, energetic and endocrine systems. Even our super important G.I tract immune system collectively known as GALT – Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue – is produced by gut bacteria signaling. What makes us think they can’t influence other aspects of our bodies? They probably do. I like to think they get a kick out of us thinking we are in control.
WHAT WE DO KNOW
The NY Times article points to more of a lab solution, where we attempt to understand and direct the functions of these tiny organisms. It was clearly stated we are still far away from understanding this extremely complex and mysterious living system and I couldn’t agree more. What I would like to focus on is what we do know, this being that the microbiota reacts and adapts to its environment.
So whatever choices we make impact us in ways that rearrange our microbial community for better or worse. The great majority of these organisms live in our large intestine where they make use of the undigested food. The bad news is that they are completely altered when high amounts of processed foods, rich in sugar and fat, are introduced and not enough fiber is consumed. Sounds like a typical Western diet, doesn’t it? Maybe this is why research is showing the incidences of digestive diseases unfortunately, but very reasonably, correlate with the amount of neurological and mood disorders.
So the same way they have a mood-altering influence on us, we have a community-shaping influence over them through our daily actions. Our stress level management is highly influential in the shaping of the microbial communities.
Humans are one of a handful of living creature that can actually create a physiological stress response without an actual threat.
Our large prefrontal cortex allows us to store memories; triggers such as smells, sounds or simply self-generated memories can create a physical stress reaction. In short, we can undergo stress A LOT!
Counteract this with:
- Deep breathing
- Adding more fruit and veggies with emphasis on raw foods.
- Support the stress-regulating B vitamins synthesizing your gut microbes
- And more.
Make healthy food choices. When you eat healthy foods, the microbes that consume them will flourish. And so will we. Beyond choosing a wide variety of fresh, whole foods, support your microbiome by eating foods that contain high levels of beneficial bacteria. Sauerkraut, miso soup, yogurt, and kefir will all make a positive difference!
Avoid hand sanitizers and antibiotics. “Clever marketing has made Purell a household name. We take antibiotics at the first sign of a cough. But microbes constitute 80 percent of our immune system. Beneficial bacteria keep the harmful ones in check….Some microbes do cause disease, of course. We call them germs or pathogens, but those are just labels. If the conditions inside our bodies aren’t hospitable to specific microbes, they don’t last long enough to make us ill,” (SuperLife, 35) This is the focus of the debate between germ theory and host theory, by the way.
The short version: There’s no doubt that scientists still have much to learn about microbes and how they operate in the human body. We’ll continue to see more discoveries in the news! For now, consciously make food choices (eating whole, organic, raw fruits and veggies) that will feed the good bacteria and they will keep in check the harmful ones. It is worth the effort. Despite all the research that remains, we already know this to be true: “[Gut bacteria] are an extremely powerful force in our lives and our health.” (SuperLife, 37)
Next Steps: Find more information on your gut bacteria and microbiome, plus additional suggestions for keeping them healthy on pages 35 to 42 of SuperLife.
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