The importance of understanding our gut microbiome
We are raised to believe that our bodies are made up of trillions of cells. That would be a neat and tidy little story, but it’s not exactly true.
While it’s true that your many cells contain the DNA and provide the body's structure, more than half of what makes up “you” is, technically, myriad communities of separate creatures. To be precise, while our bodies are made up of around 37 trillion human cells, we’re also made up of roughly 39 trillion microorganisms – bacteria, fungi, protozoa and other thing-ys – that have co-evolved with us over thousands of years. That is, most of “you” is technically… well… not you. Think about that…
Coined by the Nobel prizewinning molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg, the microbiome is the word for the community of microorganisms that make up the more than half of us that is not exactly us. Some of them are just silent hitchhikers on our journey through life, serving no purpose and causing no harm. But other organisms are integral to the proper functioning of our bodies. This is especially the case with those that live inside our guts and make up our gut “flora” – a gastrointestinal jungle teeming with microscopic critters. Fun! Let’s meet our little inhabitants:
Each of these categories of organisms is incredibly diverse. They live on your skin and in your saliva, mouth, eyes, and, as mentioned above, in your gut. When you think about it, we are walking collections of symbiotic relationships.
As a society, we’ve long believed that our health was determined by two things: genetics and diet/lifestyle. With the new scientific advancements in the understanding of the microbiome, it’s clear that BOTH genetics and lifestyle have a major downstream effect on the many communities of microorganisms that influence whether we become diseased.
The exact composition of our gut flora can vary by age, region, health and diet, but there are between 500 and 2,172 distinct species of bacteria in the human gastrointestinal tract alone. This ecosystem is involved in many of our life-sustaining functions:
The list of benefits of a balanced microbiome reads like the wish list of an average 55-year-old: better digestion, weight loss, improved sleep, healthier skin, mental clarity, mood stability, and more energy. Where do we sign up?!
If you’re unaware of how to balance your microbiome, or perhaps even unaware that it needs to be, then it’s highly possible that your microbiome is, in fact, wonky. More specifically, it probably means that your microbiome lacks the species diversity that keeps it in balance.
This is particularly true in decadent Western countries where we are all freaked out bundles of stress that sit too much, work too much, sleep too little, have shitty high-calorie/low-fiber diets, drink too many sugar-sweetened drinks, take too many antibiotics and don’t exercise nearly enough. As a result of our unbalanced, less diverse microbiome, we often tend to be overweight or obese, increasingly insulin-resistant and highly susceptible to diseases like diabetes, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and eczema. Let’s look at these bad habits one by one as they pertain to gut health:
Your microbiome is a big part of the system of systems that is “you,” so any imbalances there can reverberate throughout your body. Unbalanced, unhealthy gut microbiome can cause or contribute to myriad gastrointestinal problems such as constipation, gallstones, acid reflux, infections, hemorrhoids, IBS/IBD, and ulcers as well as other kinds of diseases like liver disease, diabetes, pancreatitis, and hepatitis. It can also interfere with your serotonin and therefore your ability to control moods as well as your cognition, learning, memory, and numerous physiological processes.
For around $200 you can take an at-home test that analyzes your mRNA, measures microbial and human gene expression and gives you recommendations for how to improve your gut flora. Alternatively, your doctor can perform a test for you. You can also simply notice the various patterns going on in your body. Here are some signs your microbiome is off kilter:
Now that we understand our bodies to be a delicate balance of mutually beneficial (usually) relationships, how should that impact how we live our lives? Or what we eat? To what degree should we change our lifestyles to ensure internal harmony and wellbeing?
Lots of behaviors, habits and preferences can impact your gut health, but none more than your eating habits. A little dash of patience helps too, because it can take up to six months to rehabilitate an unbalanced microbiome. All of these suggestions will sound familiar to you, as we’ve all read them a thousand and one times.
Our guts dig fiber - especially the kind that can't be digested without their help. Green leafy veggies especially – leeks, onions, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, artichokes and so on. But also whole grains. The fiber passes through the small intestine to the colon where microbes break it down and convert it to energy. One study found that “Adding fiber to the diet can trigger a shift from a microbial profile linked to obesity to one correlated with a leaner physique.” It can also help ensure those microbes are well fed and don’t start munching on the protective mucus lining of the gut, which possibly triggers inflammation and disease.
Sugar is in a ton of different foods, and it’s not an altogether bad thing. But a lot of food we eat is laced with sugar without our knowledge. The bread on a Subway sandwich, for example, has so much extra sugar that a court in Ireland officially declared it a dessert - like a pastry. In fact, many restaurant dishes and a good number of processed foods contain hidden sugar. Given that it’s almost unavoidable, it’s a good idea to cut the sugar you do know about. That will help the “good” bacteria thrive which improves diversity which improves digestion, improves your skin, decreases your brain fog and improves your mood. It's all connected, you see.
Though historically a complacent and largely ineffectual product category, probiotics have recently started to make a big comeback. Much of the progress is thanks to high-resolution, long-read DNA sequencing, which helps scientists target specific imbalances in the microbiome that lead to diseases like diabetes, IBS, and more. One 2018 study of 22 types of probiotics found that 68% of them had “strong-moderate” evidence for efficacy for at least one type of disease. By leveraging this technology and applying pharma-like manufacturing processes, it is possible that probiotics advance to become another branch of medicine.
As counter-intuitive as it is, that hot sauce threatening to eviscerate your bowels might just improve the health of your microbiome. It’s too soon to say for sure, but according to early studies out of the Harvard School of Public Health, spicy food (specifically the capsaicin in hot peppers) might lower inflammation, improve metabolic health and have a positive effect on gut bacteria and weight.
Break out the yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi (not all at once, that’s gross). They all contain healthy bacteria, mainly the strain Lactobacilli, which help the body break down food, absorb nutrients, and fight off disease-causing organisms in the gut.
You’ve probably heard of these things before. Found in things like red wine, dark chocolate, olives, and green tea, polyphenols are a particular type of organic compound that gets broken down by the microbiome and then stimulates healthy bacterial growth.
It’s hard to overstate the shift in our understanding on the microbiome. We used to believe that it didn't have much impact on our overall health. Now we believe it's absolutely central. We used to believe that our eating habits, medicines, and lifestyles had very little effect on it. Now we believe that it's highly sensitive to what we put in our mouths and how we live our lives. We used to believe that it wasn't terribly relevant to disease. Now we believe that an unhealthy gut flora can cause or contribute to a whole host of chronic conditions. The study of the microbiome used to be a backwater science. Now, thanks to DNA sequencing, it's hit the big time, baby. We’re on the cusp of a revolution in microbiome science, so expect to learn a lot more in the years to come.
If you want to change the world, we’d love to talk.