Let’s Take Care of Our Microbes, So They Can Take Care of Us!
We are tubular beings. The pathway from our mouth to our anus is comparable to one of those windy silly straws. And just as we gather information about our environment from our exterior sensing organs such as our skin, eyes, and nose, our interior also gathers information from our environment, especially in the form of food. Though it is satisfyingly silly for me to think about my friends as walking tubes, there is obviously much more to us than that of a brightly colored plastic silly straw.
As we are beginning to understand, it turns out we are MUCH more. Our human tube can be thought of as a ‘meta-organism,’ or a grouping of trillions of living microbes in and around us that comprise one human ‘self.’ Treeeillions–by some estimates they outnumber our human cells 10 to 1. Microbes are single-celled organisms, and they are the oldest form of life that formed the foundation for multi-cellular life to evolve—plants and creatures like us could not survive without them. And indeed, disruptions or imbalances amongst these coexisting beings residing along our gastro-intestinal tract are implicated in a host of common health issues. As more and more research is conducted on the intricate connection between our gut microbiome and our state of health, I’d love to take a moment to discuss what has essentially brought about a re-writing of how to approach healing and preventative care. Improving our ability to take care of our microbial colonies is a huge advantage in our modern world, and I’ll outline some nuts and bolts about microbiome stewardship, with a focus on the communities residing in the gut.
Contemporary scientific studies are confirming what many traditional medical models have known for centuries–that the seat of health is our gut. Many important functions occur in the gut, and intestinal microbiota (often called flora, which is a bit of a misnomer because these microbes are not plants) are busy at work carrying them out, contrary to our former belief that they were just chilling in the gut twiddling their mitochondrial thumbs. Their tasks include creating barriers against potential invaders, assisting in digestion and absorption of nutrients, taking a load off the liver as a first line of defense against toxins, producing enzymes as well as vitamins and neurotransmitters, and dictating the immune system’s activity, i.e. preventing immune cells from attacking the body’s own tissues and producing antibiotics to fend off harmful bacteria. This last microbial job is huge considering that 80% of our body’s immune system is located right around the gut–which makes sense considering our tube-like anatomy positions our intestinal lining as the border with the outside world. And just in 2015 we learned that the brain has its own lymphatic system, which means that when our immune system finds something potentially harmful in the gut, the immune cells in our brain go into high alert as well. When the immune system is persistently being called upon to respond to all the offenders in our modern diet, inflammation can become chronic and set the stage for many a modern disease.
So. What to eat, what to do in order to support our intestinal colonies? Or, asked differently: What information can we relay to these little buggers so that they can thrive and excel at their jobs, and in turn so too can our human cells (like our immune/nervous system cells) without being kicked into chronic overdrive.
Turns out, microbes are pretty fluent in the language of food. Pre-biotic foods such as dandelion, artichokes, onions, bananas (and plantains, yum!) tend to feed beneficial bacteria, and pro-biotic foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt without sugar, can introduce beneficial bacteria. It is also what you’re not saying. We’ve learned that diets high in carbohydrates and sugars feed microbes that proliferate and disrupt these delicately balanced ecosystems. Diets that limit or avoid starchy grains and refined sugars in favor of pastured animal proteins, healthy fats, and vegetables grown without the use of pesticides or genetically modified foods seem to support healthy microbial communities. And what’s the deal with gluten? It seems that while the degree of sensitivity varies amongst individuals, there is evidence that suggests the lining of the small intestine is compromised and inflammation usually a result even in healthy individualsA word on GMO’s: Glyphosate is an herbicide used in GM foods that we know disrupts our microbial communities, specifically their ability to produce essential amino acids via the shikimate pathway, with a downstream effect of making us more vulnerable to the toxic effects of environmental chemicals.
Also, our gut is functioning best when we are in parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) mode. Spending time in a relaxed state is another way to support our intestinal communities in a big way.