26 Jul The Most Important and Most Forgotten Organ of the Body
Often when I lecture on topics relating to gut health I’ll begin by asking individuals in the audiences to shout out the name of an organ for me. Usually what I hear are responses like; heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, stomach, bladder. Sometimes I’ll even hear individuals say, skin.
However, in the hundreds of lectures that I’ve given on this topic I have never once had anyone say, “microbiome.”
Some people are surprised to even learn that the microbiome is in fact considered an organ, especially because so many individuals still don’t quite understand what it is, let alone how important it is to our overall health.
After working with 1000s of clients in my own private practice, I firmly believe that if you begin to understand your microbiome you can truly begin to transform your health.
For me, treating and healing the microbiome is the cornerstone of every single protocol I do – without exception!
Now before we dive in, I do want to warn you this blog is a bit more “science-y” than my others so if you love that kind of thing and really want to understand what the microbiome is so you can really stump your friends with trivia and facts at your next dinner party – keep reading! BUT because I want to make sure no one misses this information, if you want to skip to the more functional part of this post and learn how you can boost your own microbiome, you can jump down to the section called “How to Protect and Build a Healthy Microbiome”
What is the Microbiome?
The human body is comprised of about 30 trillion human cells along with over 100 trillion bacterial cells, including fungi, yeasts, viruses, protozoa and more. Which means we have WAY more bacterial cells in us than there are human cells. In fact, this entire system of bacterial cells is believed to weigh about 3-5 lbs., which is about the same as our brain.
The sum of our nonhuman cells is called our microbiota or more commonly referred to as our microbiome (which is actually the genes of our microbiota but we won’t get picky here).
The development of your microbiome is a very complex process which begins in utero. Microbes from the placenta flow into the fetus during development, which then builds as the baby passes through the birth canal. Researchers have found that this passing of maternal microbiota to the child is immensely important because the microbiome plays a critical role in protecting and supporting our overall health throughout our entire life. In fact, research has found that babies born via cesarean section are more likely to develop as adult’s conditions like diabetes, asthma, and even obesity.
Interestingly, there is a researcher at NYU, Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, who has developed a technique to transfer these beneficial bacteria from mother to child in the case of C-section. This is proving to be one of those really exciting advancements in medicine, especially here in America where 1 in 3 children are born by C-section.
The more we protect, support and develop our community of tiny organisms, the more we will then thrive!
Where is the Microbiome Found?
For years we’ve believed that the microbiome exists only in the gut, but that is a myth. Athena Aktipis, PhD, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University, says that in addition to the microbiome that’s found in the gut we also have other communities of microbial organisms located in the mouth, lungs, skin, eyes and vagina.
In the mouth, our microbiome protects us against developing ulcers and it also helps us to lower systemic blood pressure. In the lungs, it prevents diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and even rheumatoid arthritis. Disruptions to the skin microbiota are associated with skin disorders like psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and acne. In the eyes, we find dry eye and keratitis is associated with alterations in the eye microbiota. And in the vagina our microbial protect us from vaginosis, yeast infections, and urinary tract infections.
It is still the gut however, which houses the densest part of the microbiome. Our gut, which is about as big as a 377-square-foot surface area, has trillions of beneficial organisms that have been shown to participate in a variety of vital processes. These organisms protect us from everything like allergies and asthma to dementia and depression to Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
What makes a Healthy Microbiome?
When it comes to having optimal-functioning gut microbes, research has found diversity is key! A healthy gut houses about 1,000 different species of bacteria. These bacteria support us through their ability to assimilate nutrients as well as manufacture vitamins. We may be the ones to gather and consume our food but we need healthy gut bacteria to help us digest foods which contain complex carbohydrates and fiber. Different organisms prefer different foods. Therefore, the more diverse our bacteria, the better we can fully digest what we eat.
Diversity also plays an essential role in immunity. We used to think that the immune system was this army ready to attack any hostile invaders that may compromise our system, but we now know it’s actually a communication system.
The immune system’s primary function is to recognize, tolerate, and glean information from our bacteria. This is why you’ll find doctors like Dr. David Purlmutter, author of Brain Maker and Dr. Josh Axe, author of Eat Dirt, talk about the importance of exposure to bacteria. Without exposure to a variety of harmless bacteria, our immune systems are deprived of the chance to build adaptive skills.
How to Protect and Build a Healthy Microbiome
Only take Antibiotics when Necessary
According to the CDC, in 2016 more than 30% of antibiotic prescriptions written in the outpatient setting were completely unnecessary. When we use antibiotics to treat routine problems they can deplete our microbiome in ways that allow the bad guys to take over. We also have to consider the antibiotic use in factory farming. Livestock raised on feedlots are fed antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease as well as to fatten them up. When we eat these animals, we eat antibiotic residue. You can avoid this problem by supporting farmers who use more humane methods by choosing meat from animals raised on pastures.
Consume Prebiotic Foods
When you hear the word “prebiotic” think of it as fertilizer for your microbiome. Prebiotics allow your good gut bacteria to thrive. Some prebiotic foods would be asparagus, green-tipped bananas (or unripe bananas), Brussels sprouts, chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic, jicama, leeks, legumes, onions and peas. It’s estimated that our ancestors consumed about 135g of prebiotic fiber a day, where now the average American consumes only about 5g a day. It’s also important to note that not all fiber is prebiotic fiber, so those fiber supplements probably aren’t doing you much good when it comes to this area. You actually need to get specific.
To put it simply, sugar feeds the bad guys. Eating a lot of sugar can strengthen pathogens like E.coli and it also triggers a battle between bad microbes and our own cells, which use glucose for energy. Sugar also causes a lot of inflammation which causes your harmful microbes to thrive and multiply. When you get a lot of prebiotic foods and remove the sugar, we effectively starve our bad bacteria.
Eat Lots of Different Whole Foods
With over 600,000 items to choose from in a traditional big box grocery store, it’s hard to believe that the average consumer only purchases about 50 different items yearly. Think about it….. How often do you go into your grocery store and buy the same 4-5 veggies with little to no variation? Weekly, right? It’s the way American’s shop. However, it’s recommended by ancient Japanese cultures that we eat at least 30 different whole-food ingredients a day! That may seem impossible, especially if you fall into the latter category, so what I’ll say to my clients is aim for half that. If you can get 15 different whole foods in in one day (and try for every color of the rainbow) then you’re doing excellent in my book!
Feast on Fermented Foods
Fermented foods and their benefits on good gut bacteria have been widely debated over the past couple years. Some individuals believe that consuming just 4-6 oz of fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha can increase your beneficial gut bacteria by as much as ten trillion organisms, which could equal as much as 8 bottles of probiotics. Other researchers however no longer believe that fermented foods repopulate our guts, but they do believe they support our gut function in other ways like improved overall diversity and growth in the numbers of bacteria that are able to make short-chain fatty acids. So essentially, they help their buddies.
We have become obsessed in our society with antimicrobial products but many experts are arguing that these sanitizers are making us more, not less, susceptible to disease-causing organisms. This is because they kill off most of the bacteria on our hands and on surfaces but leave behind the more robust organisms which can mutate and become superbugs, according to Dr. Mary Ruebush. An easy solution to cleanliness is to rely on soap and water and avoid the overuse of antibacterial cleaners.
Connect with Others
Remember Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown? The cute little cartoon character who was always walking around in a cloud of his own filth? Well I hate to break it to you, but we all have a bit of Pig-Pen in us. Research conducted at the University of Berkeley found that chimpanzees who engaged in lots of social behaviors had a more diverse microbiota due to their ability to transfer microbes through close contact, touch and even just breathing in someone- or something- else’s bacterial spores which surround all of us like a cloud of dust.
There is so much we can do to protect and build our microbiome and I believe it begins by shifting the way we think of ourselves. Rather than seeing our body as a single isolated unit, if we begin to see it for what it really is – a team of microorganisms – we can begin to feed and nourish it that way. I’ll be honest, sometimes I’m just totally over eating salads and raw veggies, but when I can remind myself that I’m literally eating for trillions and they need the good stuff, it’s actually easier for me to make the right choice.