Updated: Mar 27, 2019
Frequently unwell? Suffer from allergies, eczema, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, inflammatory disorders, depression, anxiety....?
Well the health of your gut may be responsible.
90% of our bodies are bugs! You are riddled with trillions of individual germs - a community of parasites, viruses, yeasts and bacteria that make up your microbiome. The majority of these microbes reside in your gastrointestinal tract or gut. But the question is, are they the right kind of bugs? Are they the friendly kind that aid digestion, produce vitamins and protect against hostile germs? Or do they lower your immunity and put you at risk of certain diseases?
Many years ago I attended a talk by nutritionist & health expert Cyndi O'Meara, also author of the popular book Changing Habits, Changing Lives. She re-enforced the importance of gut health to our overall well-being, and how our choices today don't just impact us individually, but they also affect future generations. Your kid's health is at stake.
What is the microbiome and why is it so important?
The use of the term microbiome has exploded in the last 5 years. It is used to describe a community of microorganisms occupying a habitat such as the human body or a part of the human body. The microorganisms are a vast array of species from bacteria, yeasts, parasites and viruses that have a physio-chemical role within that environment.
"We depend on a vast army of microbes to stay alive: a microbiome that protects us against germs, breaks down food to release energy, and produces vitamins"
Your microbiome plays an important role in:
2. making B vitamins and vitamin K
3. production of essential amino acids such as tryptophan and serotonin
4. digestion and absorption of nutrients
5. protection of the epithelial lining of the gut
6. enhancing communication with cells
7. correct food choices
8. protection of heavy metals
9. brain and mental health
10. physical health and prevention of diseases, even possibly cancer.
It may even have an impact on our personality and influence our body weight.
This is a new area of research and I haven't included all the references. However, listed below is a bibliography for more articles on the topic. Many have links to the specific research.
Lets use the production of the essential amino acid tryptophan as an example. Tryptophan is needed for general growth and development as it is involved in protein synthesis, but it is also a biochemical precursor to the vitamin niacin, a phytohormone auxin & perhaps most importantly the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is needed to produce the neurohormone melatonin. Hence this tryptophan --> serotonin --> melatonin pathway is necessary for adequate sleep and a stable mood. How many people do you know that are moody, irritable, depressed and can't sleep?
Unfortunately tryptophan is not synthesized by our bodies, so we must get it from our diet, or it can be cleverly produced by the healthy microbes within our gut. If we have those healthy microbes.
Foods such as seeds and nuts, cheese, meat, fish and eggs are great food sources. However a poorly functioning gut can affect how we digest food and absorb nutrients. The quality of those food sources also plays a part, with heavy use of pesticides, fertilizers and preservatives further destroying our insides. It is a vicious cycle, which ultimately comes back to the necessity of having a healthy gut.
So how is your microbiome seeded? Why are future generations at stake?
Our microbiome is seeded when we are born and maybe even prior, in the womb. As we pass through the birth canal we are exposed to our mother's microbes and hopefully a vast array of "good" bugs. Skin to skin exposure and colostrum in breast milk also help to provide our bodies with the collection of "good" bugs needed to produce a healthy microbiome (if the mother has these bugs to pass on). Babies born via C-section have obviously missed out on one route and therefore some obstetricians are using vaginal swabs to 'seed' c-section babies. For more information see the documentary - Microbirth. Or this article by midwife Dr Rachel Reed.
One study has found that seeding may even begin in the womb, through the placenta. The bacterial ecoystem in the placenta was found to be very similar to those found in the adult mouth, as opposed to the vagina or gut. Once absorbed into the mother's bloodstream, the microbes could then reach the baby either by crossing the baby's blood vessels within the placenta or by passing into amniotic fluid, which the baby swallows.
It was also suggested that the mother's diet and oral health were then important during pregnancy, not just for the obvious reasons of nutrition and infection, but for seeding this microbiome and even reducing the risk of premature delivery.
So essentially our birth plays a critical role in our health, and as a mother (and father through skin to skin contact) our child's life. Slowly we could be diluting our healthy microbiome, and affecting the DNA that is passed on to future generations. For every one human gene we have, there are 100 associated genes within our microbiome.
As Rodney Dietert, Professor of Immunotoxicology from Cornell University says in Microbirth;
"If we miss the window at that point (birth), then the immune system never matures correctly. And that can lead to haphazard responses and production of disease later in life."
How can we destroy our microbiome?
Even if we are fortunate enough to be seeded with a healthy microbiome, we can also destroy it. Recent studies suggest that our microbiome was more similar to primates and those in rural less developed countries. Our western diet of highly processed foods, heavy use of pesticides and overuse of medications such as antibiotics are mostly blamed for the destruction of our microbiome. The great news is, we can improve our microbiome and our gut health. Want to know how? Check out the next installment "6 simple steps to heal your gut & boost your immune system". It also has everything you need to know about probiotics. See you there.