Your Microbiome under the microscope
Updated: Aug 26
You may think that your microbiome is a random collection of bacteria that live in your gut. Whilst that may be partly correct, the microbiome that lives in and on your body. is anything but random unless something happens to disturb the intricate balance..
You have oral microbiome, skin microbiome, gut microbiome and if you are a woman, vaginal microbiome.
This microbiome is made up of bacteria, yeast, fungi, archaea (single-celled organisms without a nucleus), protists (single-celled organism with a nucleus) and viruses. These can either be
1. Commensal, meaning that the bacteria benefit from the host without harming or helping it.
2. Mutualistic, meaning that both the bacteria and the host benefit from the bacteria's presence.
3. Pathogenic, meaning that the bacteria causes harm to the host
Studies suggest that we develop the microbiome whilst still in utero and that when we are born and pass through the birth canal, we are further exposed to the entire spectrum.
No two people have the same microbiome, not even identical twins! We all have a microbiome that is unique to us which is shaped by the food we eat, the environment we live in, the air we breathe, the chemicals we use, the medication we take as well as how we manage stress.
What roles are the microbiome involved in?
Assists with breaking down the food we eat and helps to absorb the nutrients
Helps to extract energy from food
Processes waste material
Controls ghrelin and leptin which are our hunger and satiety hormones
Produces 90% of the brain's serotonin (the 'happy' hormone)
Produces sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone)
Removes used hormones from the body
Determines the robustness of the immune system
Main communication channel between the brain, the nervous system and the immune system
Judging by the above, we start to understand the critical importance of having a healthy microbiome. Should this delicate balance be disturbed we are at risk of a whole range of health challenges, from Allergies to Zoster and everything in between!
As little as ten years ago very few people would have linked conditions such as Autism, eczema, migraines, dental problems, and dementia to an imbalance in gut flora; however we now know that the seat of most diseases has its origins in the gut.
Keeping the trillions of sub-microscopic organisms healthy and happy are crucial to our wellbeing.
Enemies of the microbiome
Presuming we are all born with healthy microbiomes; the following are the main culprits that prevent it from working optimally:
Antibiotics: public enemy number one! Antibiotics can save your life if you are dying from gangrene or pneumonia. However the fact of the matter is that they are one of the most over-prescribed medicines used to treat common and minor ailments such as the common cold which ironically is caused by a virus. Antibiotics should only be prescribed if you have a serious bacterial infection. Antibiotics work indiscriminately which means that when you are taking them to kill the bacteria causing an infection they will also kill all the friendly and helpful bacteria that live in your gut, mouth, skin and vagina.
Taking probiotics with the antibiotics defies any common sense as these too will be destroyed. By all means eat fibre-rich food and take a probiotic supplement at least 12 hours after you have taken an antibiotic, but know that this alone will not restore your microbiome to what is was before you started taking the antibiotic! Have you ever wondered why you develop thrush when you are on a course of antibiotics, or why you get severe diarrhoea?
Some research indicates that it can take as long as TWO YEARS for the microbiome to recover from just one round of antibiotics! To make matters worse, overuse of antibiotics have led to strains of bacteria that are resistant to most antibiotics, resulting in superbugs which kill thousands of people every year.
Bad Eating: processed foods are the nemesis of healthy gut flora because they tend to be devoid of fibre and high in trans fats. Junk food like burgers, fried chicken, pizza, pies, doughnuts, french fries, sausages, biscuits, chocolate, chips, bread, fizzy drinks etc are like nuclear warfare for your gut flora. So called 'healthy' foods like dairy and meat from commercially raised animals are also detrimental to our health. In order to prevent cows, chickens, sheep and pigs from getting sick (and to keep them fat), antibiotics are used extensively during their short lives. These land up in the milk you drink and in the meat you eat.
Pesticides: most commercially grown fruits, vegetables and crops are sprayed with pesticides (which include fungicides). These wreak havoc with the gut microbiome as residues remain on the products even if you wash them.
Chemicals and pollutants: we are exposed to thousands of chemicals every day. From the soap we wash ourselves with to the cleaning products we use in our homes, most of them cause some damage. Fortunately we can choose to use more natural products at home but we are still exposed to exhaust fumes, building materials, mould, factory emissions and radiation from cellphone towers and 3G, all of which we have very little or no control over.
Stress: although being stressed doesn't kill the microbiome, the things we do as a result of stress such as bad eating habits, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, prescription and OTC medications, lack of sleep and exercise all contribute to poor health
The Pill: hormonal birth control pills and injections can be just os devastating on the gut microbiome as antibiotics! Give the matter some serious thought before subjecting yourself to decade's worth of unnatural medication. Condoms still remain the best long-term solution for preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Obsessive cleaning and staying indoors: we need to be exposed to nature in order to boost our microbiome. I don't know of one child who ever became violently ill from eating sand. One of the (many) problems that COVID 19 has brought with it is our propensity to stay indoors which limits our full range of contact. The other is our obsession with cleaning our hands and all the surfaces we come into contact with with germ-killing sanitzers. Just like with antibiotics these kill bugs indiscriminately, whether they are beneficial to us or not.
The rebound of this obsession will be to create more and more super bugs. Further down the line the active ingredients in some of these sanitisers and cleaning products will pose other risks to the environment and to our health. Soap and water are still the best forms of defence against COVID 19, or in fact any germ.
How to keep the critters happy?
Just like us, the microbiome needs to eat to survive, but it needs to eat healthy food to thrive! Fibre (also known as pre-biotics) is their favourite food; it is broken down in the large intestine into Short Chain Fatty Acid's (SCFA's) which are crucial for our good health.
Eating fibre-rich foods is first prize, but eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha will also help.
If your microbiome is severely disrupted then taking a supplemental probiotic will go a long way to restore the balance.
Foods rich in probiotics include:
Asparagus, apples, cabbage, broccoli, garlic, onions, leeks, beans, lentils, flaxseeds, sweet potatoes, and oats to name a few.
Eat organic produce where you can and better still, leave the skin on.