Know Your Enemies, and Your Friends
In the coming weeks we are going to really start getting into the weeds, tackling specific issues related to gut health like motility, the immune system, IBS, food allergies, candida, SIBO, heartburn, diabetes and obesity, thyroid and other hormones. Before we do that I’m going to talk a little bit more about the role of the microbiome in relation to general health.
Germs: love ’em or hate ’em
What is your initial reaction when you hear the word “germs?” It’s probably not good, right? Our war on germs began in the late 1800’s with Louis Pasteur. At first, his germ theory of how germs (pathogenic bacteria) were the root of all disease was a good thing. He proved anthrax, cholera and tuberculosis were all caused by germs. After his discoveries, soap was no longer a luxury used only by the well-to-do. Doctors started washing up before surgeries, saving many lives from infection. Pasteurization (heat-treating) was used, and still is, to extend the shelf-life of products that would otherwise go bad quickly due to naturally occurring bacteria.
Unfortunately we didn’t stop there. Because we still didn’t understand the complexity of the human ecosystem and the role of the microbiome to our healthy existence, we proceeded to wipe them out with antibiotics, antibacterials and over sanitization. We have managed to kill off both the good and bad germs. We now believe this overkill to have created superbugs like MRSA which are antibiotic resistant infections. Our misunderstanding of germs and bacteria had us go from saving lives to losing lives by swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. Vaccines are a good example. A vaccine is a very small amount of a live virus. These small amounts of exposure help our immune system “learn” what is an invader so that when we are exposed to a full-blown case of the virus, our immune system can muster a defense to shut it down. The problem with some vaccines is the dangerous additives like mercury (thimerosal). But you see what the original intent was for vaccines.
As you are learning, bacteria make up 90% of our human selves and are critical to our existence. So in our drunken madness to eradicate bacteria, we started eradicating ourselves by eradicating our health. Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have issued a ban on certain over-the-counter antibacterial ingredients in soap, like triclosan, due to the belief they have contributed to the onset of the superbugs. 1
But our misunderstanding of bacteria goes deeper than that. One example is H.pylori, which has been around for at least two hundred thousand years and lives in the stomachs of half the world. In the 1980’s it was discovered that H.pylori is the principal cause of peptic ulcers and gastritis. So what did we do? We set out to wipe it out, until someone finally sat down and thought about it. How can something we’ve coexisted with for so long, be so harmful and yet still be living amongst us, and within us, and not wiping us out? It turns out that H.pylori is what is called a commensal bacteria, or a friendly bacteria. In the U.S., a much smaller percentage of people have it, and its decline has been linked to a rise in asthma. There is also evidence that this sharp decline in H.pylori is linked to obesity; especially in children because they are more likely to be lacking in H.pylori. For a great in-depth read on this and the role of bacteria to our health, here’s a link to an article I found while researching for my article.
In short, H.pylori, which we have basically eradicated over the course of a century, generation by generation, appears to be responsible for stimulating necessary stomach acid and regulating our hunger and satiation hormones, ghrelin and leptin. A growing lack of leptin means the body doesn’t get the signal to stop eating. With a growing population of obese children on one end of the spectrum and diabetic adults on the other, this is no small problem.
Commensal vs. Pathogenic Bacteria
I mentioned the word commensal above in terms of friendly bacteria. Our microbiome is full of good and bad bacteria, commensal and pathogenic. One of the keys to health is the balance between the good and bad in our microbiome. When these buggers are not in balance in the gut, we have what is called dysbiosis, or an altered microbiome. E-coli is a good example of bacteria that when present in the wrong amount can do more harm than good. The right strains in small amounts cause us no harm. But when it predominates it becomes pathogenic, like with food poisoning.
Commensal bacteria actually protect us from pathogenic bacteria. It’s strange to think of all these bacteria living in and on us, 24/7, doing battle for our health. They battle to create nutrients for us, reduce the pH of the intestine by creating short-chain fatty acids and produce toxic metabolites that kill pathogens. As we continue on the road of learning about gut health, we will also learn more about how to use good bacteria to our benefit. For now, here are three ways bacteria interact with our bodies:
- Protecting or degrading the mucosal lining (barrier) of our digestive tract. Without enough plant-based fiber, which bacteria like to eat, they start to eat away at the mucousal lining. See, they’re supposed to be there. If they have plenty to eat, the good bacteria sit there and take up empty space and keep pathogens away. If they’re hungry, they wreak havoc. When they do this, stuff gets through the lining of the gut (our protection from the outside world), into the bloodstream, and causes inflammation in the body. Think leaky gut here.
- Creating nutrients or releasing toxins. Again, when given the wrong food, bacteria in the gut can create molecules that release toxins into the bloodstream, rather than nutrients. These endotoxins released by bacteria when they die can cause inflammation and epigenetic changes similar to those seen in obesity.
- Gut dysbiosis, or imbalance. Imbalance in good or bad bacteria puts us at risk, and our general state of health can influence the outcome. Even when you are healthy, it’s possible to get sick. For example, I can go years without getting the flu. I’ve managed to get through this winter with a really bad flu season, without ever being hit by it. But two winters ago I was down for a couple of days with a milder flu strain. Why is that? One big factor was my general health. Two seasons ago I was under a great deal of stress. Once the stressor abated, I got sick. I can look back over the years and point to stressful situations where I pushed and pushed and once the stressor abated, I went down like a brick. This year I managed my stress better, I engaged in daily practices that were health promoting, and I kept a more watchful eye on my diet in a conscious effort to avoid the flu. I fostered my good bacteria like a well-provisioned army and they did not disappoint me.
Protecting the microbiome
From this point on we are going to be talking in more detail about how to protect and build a healthy microbiome. I gave you three ways this can go sideways, now I’ll give you three things that help keep the microbiome on track:
- Diversity. We’ve managed to kill off species of good bacteria through the use of antibiotics, poor diet and exposure to environmental toxins to name a few. Increasing the diversity of your microbiome provides backup armies. You can do this by limiting the use of antibiotics and antibacterials, taking quality probiotics, and eating an organic, healthy diet.
- Richness. Not only is having a lot of different strains of good bacteria (quality) important, but having a high number (quantity) is key as well. The depth of each regimen in your army is critical. Your good bacteria need to be fed well once they’re in place. You can do this with prebiotics and fermented foods.
- Resiliency. Quantity and quality make your microbiome more resilient. Resiliency of the microbiome means it’s better able to adapt and recover from trauma and stress, just like their human host. However, you really want to avoid traumatizing and stressing out your microbiome too much, because even the strongest rubber band eventually loses its elasticity and breaks.
Well, that’s enough for this week. If you’re still hungry for more go ahead and read the article I referenced earlier. If you’ve been keeping up with my articles on gut health you’ll recognize a lot of the things I’ve talked about and be able to learn more about why I’m so excited about this area of health. Gut health is one of the pillars of my health coaching programs. Check out the website for more information on my approach and programs. See you next week!
Yours in Wellness,
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