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What’s the human microbiome? (And why should you care?)

Since beginning my health coach training program through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, I’ve learned an incredible amount about gut health and the human microbiome — such eye-opening info that I feel compelled to share some of it here! While this study is still technically in its early phases, doctors are learning so much and coming to realize more and more how crucial our gut bacteria are to literally every aspect of our physiology.

So what is the human microbiome? Simply put, it’s the unique makeup of bacteria that live in each of our individual bodies (predominately in the gut). It’s a major determinant of both our physical and mental health.

“The 100 trillion intestinal bacteria that make up what is called the human microbiome are involved in countless functions that have a profound effect on our health, risk for disease, longevity, mood, and even whether we are slender or fat.” (David Perlmutter).

This community of bacteria is so vast it even outnumbers the cells in our bodies. Early research suggests that the microbiome could be the answer to solving many mystery illnesses (asthma, gluten intolerance, autism, ADHD and more) through tests such as “microbia typing.” The bacteria profile in each of our individual guts are vastly different from one another, in fact, our individual DNA profiles are much more similar than our microbiomes are. (Dr. Andrew Weil). What’s even more interesting is that while a microbiome is unique to an individual, you can still map microbiomes regionally. For example, microbiomes from a region in Asia will look different than those from a region in North America.

So why do you need to know about this? Early research shows that our collective human microbiome is changing. In the US specifically, the microbiome has changed drastically in the last 50 years due to a handful of important factors (as discussed by Dr Weil in an IIN lecture), including:

1. A major shift in the food we’re eating. Industrialized “food-like substances” stimulate growth of a very different group of organisms than whole food do. Packaged and processed foods, pesticides and GMOs are everywhere in our food supply these days. The modern American diet is packed full of carbs containing low to no nutritional value, with substances like corn syrup, tons of hidden sugars, and ingredients you can’t pronounce. We’ve moved drastically away from diets grounded in whole, real foods. In fact, it’s even become a fad for people to try “Whole 30” / real food diets because it’s such a stretch from our typical diets.

2. An extreme overuse of antibiotics. It’s been well-documented that antibiotics can totally wreak havoc on the microbiome, killing all the “good” bacteria with the “bad.” The fact is, antibiotics have become the cure-all for many doctors, and are really only needed in a small percentage of the situations in which they’re prescribed. Have you ever gone to the doctor and had them write you a prescription for an antibiotic “just in case” your virus (that they’re pretty sure is a virus) is really an infection? I certainly have. Unfortunately, we’re not the only ones being overly dosed with antibiotics — animals are too — which in turn has added antibiotics to our meat and dairy products. Even if you try to avoid unnecessary doses of antibiotics from your doctor, it’s still quite likely found in both your tap water and your food, too. Every antibiotic that reaches your body affects the bacteria in your gut, making them more resistant to future antibiotics, while killing off and/or greatly modifying both the good and bad bacteria in the microbiome community.

3. A dramatic rise in the number of C-Section births. I was shocked to learn that 1 in 3 births are now cesarian! While a number of these are of course absolutely necessary, there are many instances where that is just not the case, and it’s become an over-used procedure in the US. A fetus’ gut is sterile, and it begins to become colonized with bacteria starting right at birth. This occurs as the baby passes through the birth canal, and this bacteria remains for life. Babies born through cesarian section are immediately at a disadvantage when it comes to gut health and the colonizing of a healthy microbiome, as they miss out on all of the bacteria they would receive through the birth canal. Babies born this way actually get their bacteria from their mother’s skin, which has caused a dramatic shift in the collective microbiome.

4. A decline in breastfeeding. Breastmilk contains a very specific pre-biotic that stimulates growth of certain organisms. Again, there are many instances where breastfeeding is not an option for some mothers, but there’s been a decline overall in both the number of women who choose to breastfeed, and in the length of time they choose to do so.

What can we all do with this info? First off, share it! That’s what I feel compelled to do. The bacteria in your gut literally can have an affect on every aspect of your mental and physical health — and not enough people know about this! Education is key.

While there’s been a shift in the collective microbiome due to a slew of factors including the four listed here, there’s growing evidence that our behavior can still make a positive impact, too. For example, I personally was able to combat my candida/gut issues through a combination of diet and healthy probiotics & supplements. Many others have treated yeast, or behavioral or psychological issues though similar diets focused on improving gut health and healthy bacteria growth.

What can you do to strengthen your own microbiome?

  • Eat whole, real foods.
  • Limit sugar intake (even natural sources).
  • Do not take antibiotics unless they are truly necessary (and make sure to support your gut with healthy, good bacteria while you take them!).
  • Be extra cautious about where you get your meat and dairy products (or consider removing them from your diet partially or altogether).
  • Drink filtered water.

Whats one thing you’ll do today to focus on strengthening your own microbiome?

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