Would you believe me if I told you that cultivating a healthy gut microbiome is one of the most important things you can do for your health? If that sounds a little far-fetched, or even if you are a little on the fence, I hope this post will help change your mind.
Our microbiome consists over about 100 trillion living microbes (bacteria, fungi, and viruses) which mainly live in our gut (i.e. the large intestine). These microbes have a symbiotic relationship with us; we could not exist without them and they without us. They help us to digest our food, crowd out harmful bacteria, maintain the integrity of our gut lining, help the body absorb nutrients, modulate genes, and neutralize cancer-causing compounds. Also, about 80% of our immune system is in our gut. Our microbes help to train our immune system to distinguish between friend and foe.
Dysbiosis is a term used when there is a microbial imbalance in the gut. This happens when the population of essential good bacteria are diminished and pathogenic (bad) bacteria, which are normally present in low amounts, flourish. Dysbiosis and damage to the microbiome has been found to be the root cause of many illnesses and diseases we see today.
Since being diagnosed with gut dysbiosis and a few conditions resulting from this imbalance such as candida overgrowth, gluten intolerance, and small intestine bacterial overgrowth, I have become really passionate about gut health. The way I feel now compared to pre-diagnosis is like night and day. To further educate myself I read The Microbiome Solution by Dr. Robynne Chutkan, a gastroenterologist and founder of the Digestive Center for Women.
Dr. Chutkan’s main argument in this book is that the “...overuse of antibiotics, chlorination of the water supply, processed foods full of chemicals and hormones, microbe-depleting pesticides, increasing rates of Cesarean sections…have ravaged our microbiome, diminishing the total number of organisms as well as the diversity of species.” This damage is a key, if not the main, contributing factor to the modern diseases in our society.
She states that “re-creating a balanced microbial habitat in our bodies might be the single most important step in improving our individual and collective health.” The book explains her whole plan to do this, which she calls the Live Dirty, Eat Clean lifestyle.
I would recommend this book to everyone, even if you are a healthy individual with a robust microbiome. I thought I was one of those individuals until a year ago after all... I could write pages upon pages about all of the tidbits of knowledge I gleaned from its pages, but I will stick to a few main topics she discusses - the birthing process, diet, antibiotics, depression, and disease. The first two I will write about in this post, the final three in my next post. All of the quotes in this post come directly from the book unless noted otherwise.
I will start this section by saying that I am not yet a mom, so I don’t have any personal experience with the birthing process (apart from when I came into the world via C-section all those years ago), but some of the facts she shared will definitely impact my future decisions when I chose to become a mother.
One in three births these days are Cesarean sections. Studies have shown that “babies born via C-section have higher rates of asthma, allergies, type 1 diabetes, and other autoimmune conditions.” They do not receive the beneficial bacteria that are the beginnings of their microbiome from their mothers when they pass through the birth canal and are typically exposed to antibiotics in the hospital at a very young age (more on antibiotics later).
Formula-fed babies also typically have higher rates of asthma, allergies, and autoimmune diseases than babies fed with breast milk. Did you know that a day’s worth of soy formula contains the estrogen equivalent of a few birth control pills? That is downright scary.
I know there are times when C-sections are medically necessary and when a mother cannot breast feed. I will never argue with a mother’s decision to choose what is best for her and her baby, but I thought this information was important to share.
“One of the most powerful tools in preventing and treating our modern plagues might be the food we eat.”
The Standard American Diet (referred to as SAD, which is so appropriate) high in sugar, bad fats, and artificial ingredients promotes growth of the bad type of bacteria in your gut. Candida overgrowth, something that I was diagnosed with this year and is not fun to treat (trust me on this one), is an example of a condition that commonly results from a diet high in sugar.
There are so many things wrong with our diets today, but one thing that really sets me off is that packaged foods are specifically designed by scientists in labs to keep you coming back for more. Just think, have you ever had just one Pringle or one Thin Mint cookie? Highly doubtful.
Dr. Chutkan states that “food cravings, anxiety, memory, mood, and how easily we lose or gain weight are just some of the traits that are heavily influenced by our gut bacteria.”
All of those things deserve a section of their own but I’m going to focus on food cravings. Once you get on the hamster wheel of eating poorly, our gut bacteria make it really hard to stop. We’ve all been there and can attest to this. Those sugar-loving microbes will make us crave more sweets and when you eat more, the sugar-loving microbes multiply.
Unfortunately, sugar is in pretty much everything we consume these days. Even in things you wouldn’t expect. I went on a little scavenger hunt at my grocery store to prove this and wrote about it.
So how do we change this pattern? Michael Pollan put it quite simply: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”
I’m going to leave it at that today before this post reaches essay length. Stay tuned for Part II, which will focus on overuse of antibiotics, the link between depression and gut health, and how gut health is influential in the development of disease. Until next time folks!