The magic and mystery of our microbiome
The importance of our microbiome
“All disease begins in the gut” – HIPPOCRATES
Our Microbiome is making headlines these days – its the thing everyone is talking about and wants to know more about and I for one am pretty excited by it!
The more we are finding out about our microbiome the more it emphasises its connections to almost everything in our body and its overall ability to shape how we function. Certainly within my clinical practice I am finding incredible links between this and many other health complaints, when we re-balance our gut microbiome the rest of our body returns to balance also.
So with this in mind, Id like to share with you some informative and helpful information which might enable you to better understand your own microbiome and how to nurture it for your long term health and wellbeing.
Our microbiome is made up of trillions of microbes (microscopic creatures such as bacteria, fungi and viruses) and they live on us and around us, majority of which are located in the gut. In a balanced microbiome there are some not so healthy microbes (the bad guys) but the majority of microbes don’t harm us – infact they help with a number of actions such as digesting our food, protecting against infection and maintaining reproductive health (the good guys).
Society tends to focus on destroying bad microbes but taking care of the good ones are even more important!
Atleast 85% of microbes in our gut should be healthy AND we need a variety. So in order to keep balance its all about quantity and quality of the good microbes. Now to give you some perspective, humans are made up of approximately 100 trillion cells including an estimated 10,000 different species however approximately 90 trillion of these make up our microbiome – fascinating huh!? So lets think about that – you are effectively a walking and talking ecosystem and your microbiome actually provides more genes that contribute to human survival than the human genome itself. So this is why having the right balance of bacteria is crucial to our health.
Our gut is often referred to as our second brain and there is good reason for that – our gut brain known technically as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) can work independently by itself without input by the brain to control movement and absorption of food – no other area of the body can do this. The gut and brain communicate directly via the Vagus nerve, a cranial nerve extending from the brainstem to the abdomen via the heart, oesophagus and lung – known as the gut-brain axis. 90% of the fibers in the vagus carry information from the gut to the brain. This communication happens through molecules that are produced by gut bacteria and then enter the bloodstream. The gut is constantly sending signals up toward our brain and its therefore understood that our gut therefore can influence certain feelings and behaviours such as stress and sadness as well as influencing memory, decision making etc. There are close connections between our guts and emotions So ‘trusting your gut’ or to have a ‘gut feeling’ actually begins to take on an entirely new meaning
Our microbiome forms from the day we are born. A baby receives its first microbes from its mother via the vaginal canal as it passes through, and then continues to receive special nutrients via the mothers breast milk which support its microbes to flourish and build up immunity. If delivered by C section and/or bottle fed, it will not benefit from the initial completeness of microbiomes so its possible the immune system could be compromised to a degree. Links have been found to show a higher rate of immune diseases and asthma in children born via c section. It takes up to the first 2 years for a childs healthy microbe community to form and then it can start producing their own. As we go on through our lives the choices we make with regards to food and lifestyle and environmental factors also then shape the health of our microbiome.
Now an imbalance of beneficial versus harmful gut bacteria, known as dysbiosis has been linked to a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders such as autism, anxiety, depression and stress. It may even play a role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. This suggests a personas stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety stress or depression. What we know is diseases and health issues have heightened greatly in the recent years, a number of which are now understood to have a direct link with our microbiome. so the importance of nurturing our microbiome is crucial if we are to take back control of own health.
The importance of our microbiome – what does it do when its balanced and healthy?
- It breaks down the food we eat so that we can digest it.
- Enables absorption of nutrients so that the rest of the body can do its job
- Regulates immunity – approximately 80% of our immune is located in our gut
- Protects against disease
- Produces serotonin (our ‘happy hormone’), dopamine (our motivation) and noradrenaline – (our alertness) and oxytocin (our self esteem, and how we love and trust)
- Plays an internal part in keeping oestrogen levels low
- Breaks down our food into macro nutrients and to enhance better absorption.
- It maintains integrity in our gut wall.
So as you can see it has a number of very important responsibilities within the body
So what tips that balance in order to bring on our heath woes?
Diet for starters – these days a majority of the food we find around us is mass produced and packaged for convenience and taste in mind rather than health. There is simply too much sugar, additives, and bad fats and an unhealthy level of gluten, (main offenders being wheat based breads pastas etc). These foods put enormous pressure on the digestive system to process which in turn means the parting of our good bacteria.
Antibiotics and other medicines – there is too big a reliance on pharmaceutical drugs to fix a symptom rather to step back and try to dig a bit deeper into the route cause. Many of the modern drugs deplete nutrients in our body or destroy the good bacteria. It’s true that antibiotics have saved millions of lives over the years by killing off the bad bacteria or preventing them to flourish but the drawback is that they also kill off all the good bacteria which creates harmful changes in composition and diversity of the gut flora.
Physical Activity – These days most of us tend to live our lives in a sedentary manner. We simply do not move enough. Physical activity has a wide range of health benefits including weight loss and lower stress levels. Its also helpful for the growth of our good bacteria.
Environment – Lets consider the enormous rise in chemicals and toxins being used around us and on us. Times have changed greatly in the passed 100 years. Everything from large scale agriculture farming methods, to pollution levels and even the skincare products you use on your body. Skin is your largest organ, it absorbs everything.
Alcohol – Now I’m the first one to admit that I enjoy a nice glass of NZ Sauvignon on a summers day but I’m also the first to admit that too much has an impact on my digestive health. Alcohol can can help bad bacteria flourish and too much can be detrimental to your health both physically and mentally.
Keen to be clean – Now its good to understand the importance of keeping things clean but these days society seems to be a little obsessive about the matter. Its important to remember the we have microbiome even on our hands so being too obsessive and using lots of chemicals can have a depleting affect as well. Remember back in the good old days, they kept things clean with good old fashioned natural soap and water for the most part. Yes there have been some wonderful advances of cleaning technology like the washing machine for which Im very grateful – but some things I believe just didn’t need improving on. These days there is a range of chemical products for literally every room and item in the house! Is it really necessary? Can we give our cleaning cupboard a spring clean and maybe get back to some simplicity on the cleaning front?
Stress – something that affects us all and can greatly affect our gut flora. Research has shown that when under stress the gut microbiome communities become discombobulated and can behave erratically. The ways in which this affect us varies in individuals. I know a number of people for example that when under stress have issues with bowel movements so its clear there is an upset of sorts in the gut area.
Sleep and the lack of – Your body needs to rest, sleep is an important function for the body and these days most of us either burn the candle at both ends with our busy lifestyles or we simply can’t sleep or lack quality of sleep. Sleep deprivation can alter the balance of gut bacteria and its also very likely that poor gut health could be the reason for many sleep issues.
What can we begin to consider and do differently for our health and wellbeing?
Eat a wide range of heathy foods so we have a variety of nutrients and foods tht are immune boosting and blood sugar balancing. We need much more of the natural, organic, non processed kind. Also remember to drink plenty of clean water – its essential for energy, digestion, hydration and skin! For further information on good foods to feed your gut, there are some great books available and of course lots can be found online too – or check out my pantry list on my website.
I think its a good idea to assess whether taking an antibiotic or a form of medicine is the only course of action before ploughing straight ahead and if it is then consider taking a good quality probiotic afterward to quickly replenish and repopulate your good bacteria. Perhaps there is also another route either independently or alongside to pursue to understand what is causing the issue in the first place?
Get more active in your daily routine – find the activity that you enjoy most and see where else you can increase some activity, like taking the stairs rather than the lift etc and start today!
With regards to environmental influences, I appreciate that we cannot change some of the larger issues in the immediate future but we can make different choices to protect ourselves from these influences such as choosing natural organic brands of food, skincare etc, get a good water filter, limit the plastics you eat and drink from and keep electronics turned off unless in use etc…
Be mindful of the alcohol you are consuming. By all means enjoy your ‘high days and holidays’ but look to enjoy the odd glass on those special occasions rather than pushing the limit on a regular basis.
Spring clean your home and rid yourself of any excess chemical products that could be substituted for a more natural alternative – Keep it simple but lessen the chemicals that surround you.
Limit your stress and address your stressors. Know what your signs are and then ensure you have the right tools and knowledge to deal with it – You can read more about ways to achieve this in my article on having a stress management toolkit.
Get yourself a good bed time routine and turn off your electronics an hour before bed, get your mind focussed for sleep. Ensure you sleep in a darkened room, avoid too many fluids prior to sleeping and try to get your sleep between 10pm and 6am. Great sleep is about quality as well as quantity.
Take a quality supplement designed to support you gut, whether that is coming from a place of needing to heal or maintaining the good balance. I use various ones on myself as well as in clinic with clients but a healthy gut means a healthy you so do the best you can for it!
So if your microbiome was your garden…. what would we need to do?
So what have we learnt?
Our microbiome is a pretty amazing and inspiring part of our make up. This exciting phase of ongoing scientific discovery is proving this with its remarkable ability to shape the function of our health and wellbeing positively and negatively depending on the overall health of our gut, its direct communication link to our brain and its connections and responsibilities throughout the human body. Its an intelligent and complex community for sure and much more is yet to be understood but the beauty of our microbiome is that we can have great influence over whether or not its healthy by the choices we make and how we chose to nuture it
In clinic I am seeing the evidence of this. I see a lot of clients with digestive issues of varying severeness but when do some work around diet and lifestyle with a focus on improving gut heath things start to turn around at rapid rates. Infact one of my programmes is designed purely on re-balancing the microbiome and the results are astounding, everything from pain relief, weight loss, increased energy… the issues seem to disappear when good gut balance is restored. So the saying fix your gut and you will fix the problem actually starts to make a lot of sense.