Updated: Mar 3, 2019
The human body is an amazing structure. A massive collection of some 724 trillion cells which all work together in a symphony of perfection that yields, among other things, life. We have 20-50 billion fat cells in the human body, with multiple functions. We have 35 billion skin cells. A healthy heart has some 2 billion cells and a liver 240 billion. But, towering over these staggering numbers is one system of almost 100 trillion cells. A system that is responsible for 80 percent of your immune system. A system that has been shown to counteract inflammation and control the growth of disease-causing bacteria, produce vitamins, absorb minerals, and eliminate toxins, control asthma and reduce the risk of allergies. A system that not only benefits your mental health and your mood, but also normalizes your weight. A system that is every bit as important as your exercise plan.
This system is not composed of cells, but bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms and collectively is called your body's microflora or microbiome. This microbiome of cells is relatively new on the science frontier, but advancing science has made quite clear that it plays a major role in your health, both mental and physical.
The microbiome is far more complex than simply stating it has a hundred trillion cells. That’s because in addition to the bacteria, there are viruses that dwell in the gut. The most common ones are called bacteriophages and, get this, they actually outnumber the bacteria 10-1. That means you have about one quadrillion of these viruses in your gut.
An article last year in Medical News Today discussed some of the more recent research advances in the field of gastrointestinal health, noting that advanced DNA sequencing is now being used to shed light on the complex interactions of gut bacteria, and how such interactions affect health and the development of disease. They postulated that gut flora can be divided into four categories:
Prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea)
Bacteriophages (viruses that infect prokaryotes)
Eukaryotic viruses (infectious agents that replicate inside living cells), an
Meiofauna (primarily fungi and protozoa)
According to the authors, fungi and bacteria tend to be in competition with each other. When you decrease the fungal diversity in your gut, healthy bacterial colonization increases and vice versa. That would indicate that things like diet, antibiotic use and vaccinations has a huge part of gut health and eventually our overall health. For example, sometimes, following a round of antibiotics, you can develop a Candida (yeast) infection. Why? Because the antibiotics kill off healthy bacteria, allowing the fungi to dominate, thus harming your immune system. Vaccinations are known to be associated with autism and many autoimmune considerations. But unless you correct the gut health following a medication schedule, you will do very little for you and your problems, and that can lead to other health problems.
Through something called DNA sequencing, researchers have realized that the meiofauna in your gut can either be helpful or harmful, depending on the type of fungi or protozoa in question. Helminths and blastocystis, two types of parasites, appear to serve protective roles by suppressing inflammation in your gut for instance, but others contribute to gastrointestinal diseases. So it’s a very delicate balance.
Research is now showing us that the complex interactions of all of these microorganisms, both bacterial and non-bacterial, can quite literally make or break your health, even if you exercise. We are actually starting to recognize that gut microbial populations act as more of an organ than we previously understood, an organ that protects our health and our weight.
The beneficial nature of this symbiotic relationship extends beyond so-called "friendly" bacteria. Even microorganisms you'd typically consider "bad" or pathogenic can play an integral role in the maintenance of health and disease prevention. So much in fact that we now understand that these bacteria can transfer genetic materials to one another in such a way that they can signal inflammation or prevent it, or signal weight gain, or prevent it.
Another article highlighting the importance of microbial diversity and balance was recently published by The Institute of Science for Society, in which the author discusses how your microbiota influences your cancer susceptibility. They note the influence of your gut flora on organ health, especially in your skin, lungs, breasts, and liver, places that often are responsible for many disease.
Preliminary research presented in 2010 actually revealed that transplanting fecal matter from healthy thin people into obese people with metabolic syndrome led to an improvement in insulin sensitivity and weight. More recent research suggests that your diet alone dramatically alters your microbiome balance. We know that antibiotics hurts the good bacteria, we also know that CAFO (animals raised in concentrated (confined) animal feeding operations) foods such as beef and poultry are regularly given antibiotics to stop the spread of disease because they are fed poor food choices and confined in close quarters to one another. Obviously if the animal is fed poorly it yields low nutrition meat. But consuming them also harms the gut bacteria and may contribute to obesity. This could be one reason that the paleo diet is so effective with its approach of grass fed beef, higher saturated fats and lots of vegetables.
The last health aspect I'll tie in here is the connection between your gut health and your brain. This connection appears to be so strong that some propose probiotics may work better than Prozac for depression and anxiety. According to an article published the June 2013 issue of Biological Psychiatry, the authors suggest that even chronic mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), might be eliminated through the use of certain probiotics. We can also see many correlations with thyroid dysfunction, obesity and poor food choices.
What all this information should really drive home is the point that optimizing your gut flora is of critical importance for disease prevention, including cancer prevention and weight loss. Re-populating your gut with beneficial bacteria is essential for maintaining proper balance. Beneficial bacteria help keep pathogenic microbes and fungi in check; preventing them from taking over.
In one study a healthy lean mother was given gut bacteria from her overweight daughter and within 6 months had gained significant weight. This quantifies previous research with mice, who were transplanted gut bacteria from overweight mice. This information may be great news for those who try everything to lose weight, yet still have problems shedding the pounds. The problem, it seems lies more within the gut microbiome than we had previously considered.
So here are five strategies for optimizing your gut microbiome
Avoid antibiotics. The overuse of antibiotics are driving antibiotic resistance among microbes at an alarming rate. As much as 80% of the antibiotic use in America is used in CAFO livestock, not humans, so simply avoiding antibiotic use from medical applications may be moot. But it gets worse: the average child in the developed world will likely receive several courses of antibiotics before his or her 18th birthday. This, coupled with the low therapeutic doses in animal feed, a high sugar and processed food diet and lack of exercise is shifting our gut microbes into an unhealthy state and possibly contributing to the metabolic disease of obesity.
Open a window. Sounds simple huh? In the past, before many of the autoimmune diseases poked their fiery heads a large part of life was spent outside and without glyphosate. At no moment during the day were we ever really separated from nature. Today, a National Activity Survey found that between enclosed buildings and vehicles, modern humans spend a whopping 90 percent of their lives indoors and hidden from natural microbes.
So, although keeping the outside out does have its advantages, modern filtration and more airtight homes also changed the microbiome of your home, and in turn you. Studies show that opening a window and increasing natural airflow can improve the diversity and health of the microbes in your home, which in turn benefit the inhabitants. Obviously, spending more time outdoors has added benefits too.
Eat more plants. This is not a hard one. I don’t mean to give up meat, but you do need to eat more grass fed and wild caught meat and avoid meat treated by antibiotics. In order to be healthy though, a greater diversity and quantity of whole plants needs to be adopted. This is the single most important dietary strategy for improving the diversity and health of your gut microbiome and your health overall. In short, your gut microbes thrive on a diversity of fermentable substrates (e.i. dietary fiber). But not all fiber is the same (physically or chemically), so consuming a diversity of whole plants will assure a steady flow of prebiotics for your resident microbes. A prebiotic is a substance that feeds the good bacteria (the probiotics). Anything that has lots of inulin (a type of fiber) in it will be helpful as a prebiotic, such as asparagus, and not just the tips, the trunk too. Other foods include: leeks, onions, bananas, and garlic. Higher concentrations exist in herbs. Dandelion root, elecampane root and chicory root all have large amounts of inulin.
So eat your vegetables, and make sure you eat more of the whole plant, not just the soft and tasty parts. Consume the trunk of the broccoli, not just the crown; consume all of the greens at the top of the leek, not just the bulb. By doing so, you will guarantee that the harder-to-digest portions of the plant will extend the metabolic activity of your microbiome deep into your bowels. Also eat a large variety of vegetables, not just one or two on your plate. Other fibers to consider are ground flax.
Start a garden. Eating freshly produced vegetables ensures that we gain maximum nutrition from the food we eat. As soon as something is removed from their vine or root they begin to lose nutrition at a staggering rate. Think of it this way, vegetables have a set amount of nutrients when they are harvested and begin to lose them the minute they are cut off from their food source. Once harvested, they begin to consume their own nutrients in order to stay fresh. This process is called respiration. Respiration breaks down stored organic materials, and leads to the loss of food value, flavor and nutrients the longer it is off the vine. Buying juice for instance is one such example. After 24 hours very little nutrients are left, cooling the juice helps, but juicing your own is always superior. That means that store purchased vegetables may not always be a better choice since they have been transported and allowed to sit. If you cannot start a garden then t lest buy from your farmers market where the food will be fresher.
Eat fermented foods. Fermented foods provide the probiotics (the actual bacteria) whereas vegetables provide the prebiotics (what these bacteria eat). They are the best route to optimal digestive health and fast. As long as you eat the traditionally made, unpasteurized versions of course. Healthy choices include lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner), fermented grass-fed organic milk such as kefir, various pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash, and carrots, and natto (fermented soy). Some of the beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods are also excellent chelator’s of heavy metals and pesticides which kill poor gut bacteria populations. Fermented vegetables are an excellent way to supply beneficial bacteria back into our gut. And, unlike some other fermented foods, they tend to be palatable to most people. As an added bonus, they can also be a great source of vitamin K2. Most high-quality probiotics supplements will only supply you with a fraction of the beneficial bacteria found in such homemade fermented veggies, so it's your most economical route to optimal gut health as well.
On Probiotic supplements. I'm not a major proponent of taking a probiotic supplement because of two reasons. First the gut has a hundred trillion cells and probiotic supplements do not! That means that as delicate as the balance is within the gut, we should not attempt to overload the gut with one or two strains of packaged probiotics. If you choose to take one, choose one that is in the refrigerated section, has over 12 billion probiotics and then change your selections with other manufacturers to ensure you get a reasonable variety. Second, there’s a lot we do not know about the gut flora. Just looking at the research reveals that we learn more every day. That means your best insurance is s