As you will gather as you read this lesson, the study of the human microbiome is attracting a lot of attention and research. But enough is known about it for us to start caring for our little buddies.
We Are Not Alone
The human body is host to somewhere between 300-1000 different species of bacteria making up more than 100 trillion microbes and is referred to as the “human microbiome.” It varies from person to person based on factors such as diet, health history, geographic location, and even ancestry. For our bodies to be healthy, all of these little guys must be properly balanced and cared for. And each has one goal—to survive and multiply.
While they live and thrive in our gut, good bacteria provide many necessary and health-related functions. They help us digest our food. They line our intestinal wall, providing a physical barrier against bad bacteria and fungi that may damage or inflame the tissues. Some produce vitamin K and B vitamins, while others aid in synthesizing vitamins. They produce 95% of our serotonin as well as other neurotransmitters. They make up 80% of our immune system, and more. The by-products of their lifecycle benefit us through a harmonious, symbiotic relationship.
We classify bacteria as bad bacteria when their byproducts or functions can harm our bodies. For example, most of the E-coli bacteria strains are harmless. In fact, the harmless strains help prevent colonization of pathogenic bacteria and produce vitamin K2, whereas the pathogenic E-coli strains cause a variety of infections and may even cause death. Unfortunately, there are many different bad bacteria armed with a wide range of harmful effects.
Lots of the Good Ones Please
Diversity in gut bacterium is essential to good health, and can influence bodily functions such as serotonin production (a huge factor in depression) or metabolism (a factor in weight control), and researchers are learning more about which particular bacteria are beneficial and which bacteria have an unhealthy effect on the body.
The bacterial makeup of a lean person is different than the bacterial makeup in someone who is obese. A recent study showed a direct correlation between a high or low level of bacterium in the gut and the subjects’ weight. A lot of bacterium, with a high level of diversity, was linked to a healthy weight, whereas less bacterium was linked to overweight individuals.
Your microbiome also helps control how your genes express themselves. So by optimizing your native flora, you are actually controlling your genes.
Our actions affect the amount, the diversity, and the ratio of good to bad bacteria. We need the good bacteria to do its work, including keeping the bad bacteria in check.
What the baddies do
One example of a bad bacteria is Enterobacter, an endotoxin-producing bacterium. In one study, it was shown that it creates inflammation that causes insulin resistance resulting in weight gain. Recent research suggests that intestinal inflammation may also play a critical role in the development of certain cancers.
Scientists have found a specific pattern of intestinal microbes can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes. Researchers have also found differences in bacterial strains between overweight and non-overweight people.
Another example of a bad member of your microbiome is Candida, a fungus. Candida is opportunistic. Given a chance, it will quickly mass-produce, wreaking havoc in the digestive tract and, in time, the entire body. It changes from a one celled yeast to grow filaments that bore through our tissues – not only in the gut, but in other organs as well. Enzymes are released from these filaments that digest our tissues. Then the Candida soaks up nutrition from the cells it destroys as well as the food we eat.
Candida can also cause all sorts of nasty infections: ear infections, gum infections, sinus infections, vaginal infections, tooth infections, skin infections.
If your microbiome is harmed and thrown out of balance it is called dysbiosis and can result in all sorts of illnesses, both acute and chronic.
With increasing regularity, modern science is linking more and more illnesses to dysbiosis. In time, we may find evidence that dysbiosis contributes to just about EVERY human disease — the implications for your health are that vast. The following is just a handful of examples of illnesses linked to an imbalanced microbiome:
- Psychiatric Illness:> The key to your mental health is in your gut (remember good bactieria produce 95% of our serotonin as well as other neurotransmitters). Probiotics are being used to successfully treat depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric problems.
- Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity
- Colorectal Cancer: Inflammation resulting from infection, injury, or other bodily insults changes your gut’s ecosystem, which can allow cancer-causing pathogens to invade and increase your risk for colorectal cancer.
- Infant Immune Deficits: Breast-fed babies receive microbes from their mother’s milk, which allows early microbial colonization of their gut. This enhances the expression of genes involved in immunity. The end result is that breast-fed babies show enhanced resistance to pathogens.
- Asthma and Sinusitis: Dysbiosis in the respiratory tract may be responsible for chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS) and asthma; with CRS, overgrowth of a single organism, Corynebacterium tuberculostearicum, is frequently the cause.
Bad ‘Biome Loves Sugar
When we eat a diet high in sugar and fat, the bad bacteria reproduce faster and get the upper hand. Candida, for example, is there, waiting. Whenever it sees an opening, like when we consume refined foods, Candida increases its numbers. It flourishes.
The balance of Candida to beneficial flora is ever changing. Beneficial bacteria vie for dominance in the gut. As the balance shifts (like when we aren’t eating foods that feed it) and Candida die off, the dying Candida releases 79 different toxins into our system. These toxins make us feel ill. As it continues to attack us from the inside, we eat a little sugar (or a lot of sugar) and we feel better because we have just fed the Candida and ended the die off process. Candida flourishes again (along with bad bacteria, which also likes sugar). You eat a little better, Candida dies off. You feel bad. You eat sugar. The cycle continues. So, yes, the Candida actually makes you want to eat sugar. Pretty clever little fungus.
Don’t Feed The Bad
We know what feeds or promotes bad bacteria: foods that contain concentrated sugars (corn syrup, sugar, agave, fruit juice, etc.), and other refined foods (sugars, flours, bread, pasta, white rice, etc.). In addition to sugar and processed foods, acidic foods, irradiated foods, antibiotics, antacids, and anti-inflammatory drugs (like NSAID’s) also promote growth of bad bacteria. A diet high in sugar and fat substantially alters the bacterial composition in the gut, making it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.
Feed the Good
We know which foods promote beneficial bacteria and which foods and medications promote bad bacteria, and we know how to increase the beneficial organisms to crowd out those that do not serve our health.
If we were to believe the advertisements, one or two servings of sugar filled, pasteurized, yogurt (often with other ingredients added to thicken, stabilize, preserve, and/or add artificial flavor) would provide all the beneficial bacteria we need. But, don’t believe it. If any beneficial bacteria from this yogurt survived our stomach acid and made it to our intestines, the dairy and sugar content alone would negate its benefits (pasteurized dairy and sugar feed Candida and “bad” bacteria). There are better ways to include probiotics in our diet.
The first and most important step to increase health inducing bacterium in the gut, is to eat a diet rich in prebiotics—in other words, lots of raw vegetables and fruit. A large salad each day, filled with a wide variety of vegetables, provides the healthy bacterium in our gut with the food it needs to thrive. Insoluble fiber also houses good bacteria, giving it a structure upon which to multiply. Raw, whole, organic vegetables and fruits (more vegetables than fruit) should always comprise 80% of our diet.
Probiotic foods such as coconut kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, and raw, organic apple cider vinegar all increase healthy bacterium in the gut. There are also excellent probiotic supplements formulated with very strong bacteria strains that have the ability to make it past the stomach acid before releasing the bacteria into the intestines. A good probiotic supplement can be powerful and can help reset your ecosystem.
Remember, while probiotics can be very helpful, more benefit is gained from prebiotics, vegetables in particular. Conversely, if your appendix has been removed, you may need a daily probiotic supplement for the rest of your life.
Every choice we make to detox, cleanse, and properly feed our bodies will affect the microbes in our gut. Though we were born with a particular balance of bacteria, it has been influenced throughout our lives by toxins, antibiotics, vaccines, and the foods we have eaten. But we do have the power to change it. We can increase the amount and the type of bacteria in our bodies primarily by the foods we choose to eat and the foods we choose to avoid.