Is our microbiome guiding our evolution?
How familiar are you with the word 'microbiome'? ...
Going back 5 years, it was a rare word and not one I'd come across. Fast forward to today, unless you've been on a deserted island, it's likely you've heard of it and for good reason.
This ‘invisible organ’ is at the heart of our wellbeing and quite possibly shaping our evolution.
In my research I was struck by just how fundamentally important these microscopic bugs are to our existence. Let's discover exactly WHAT the microbiome is and WHY we need to start paying it a lot more attention.
What is the microbiome?
- Simply, it’s our very own community of customised and inherited bugs.
- Each of us carries on and in our bodies millions of microorganisms – that includes bacteria, fungi and viruses.
- Our gut is the central location of the microbiome, where the largest concentration of our bacteria live. This collection of organisms plus their genome (genetics) is referred to as our microbiome.
- Most of these ‘bugs’ aren't dangerous. In fact, they help maintain our health in many, many ways.
- Generally we fear ‘bugs’ because of their common association with disease. OUR bugs, however, are not to be feared and in actual fact - are to be revered! I'll explain why...
Together, these tiny bugs work extremely hard on our behalf and in all that I'm learning, deserve deep respect. So much so, I wonder if this microbiome of ours, has and is, quietly guiding our evolution?
4 reasons our microbiome may be guiding our evolution.
1. We need their genes. While the genes of our microbes give them 'life', their genes also help us survive, e.g.
- some microbe genes give signals to enzymes to break down the food we can’t digest, such as fiber.
- Some provide signals to proteins that help create vital nutrients plus
- they can assist our immune system by making molecules that help keep harmful bacteria away.
The genes of our microbiome outnumber the genes of our very own body by about 100 to 1.
Consequently, it’s like we have two sets of genes! The ones we inherited from our parents and the other acquired i.e. our microbiome.
Geneticist, Seth Bordenstein says, "Arguably, the microbiota are as important as genes."
2. An ancient relationship. Animals and microbes have lived together for as long as animals have been in existence and long before humans walked the earth.
Almost every cell in our body has a form of bacterial ancestry.
3. It changes within 24 hours. Our gut flora (microbiome) changes day to day, depending on what we’re exposing it to. We need to keep feeding it daily to maintain its healthy integrity. Changing our diet can change the composition of the bugs in our gut within 24 hours!
4. Diversity is the key. Generally, a lower diversity or different types of bacteria in our microbiome relates to an increased risk of disease’, ‘Increasing diversity reduces chances of disease e.g. inflammation’. Dr Justin Sonnenberg, Scientist.
“We’ve discovered that there’s this class of chemicals in the mother’s milk that is there, not for the baby to digest, but for the microbiota to digest. The mother actually laces her milk with a kind of dietary fibre that’s a class of molecules you can’t find anywhere else on the planet. They’re not even present in cow’s milk.” ~ Dr Justin Sonnenburg, Scientist.
Right from birth our bodies intuitively know how important it is to not only nourish our babies, but our babies bugs, our microbiome. Showing just HOW fundamentally important our gut flora is.
With our modern lifestyles and choices the diversity of this ancient and mutually beneficial relationship is steadily diminishing - perhaps along with our natural evolution as a species.
“Throughout our lives, we help shape our own microbiomes — plus they adapt to changes in our environment. For example, the foods you eat, how you sleep, the amount of bacteria you’re exposed to on a daily basis and the level of stress you live with all help establish the state of your microbiota” ~ Dr Axe.
Years ago, my Dad piled up this heap of dirt at the farm, especially for the grandchildren to play on. They still have hours of fun on it, plus it's the perfect way to nourish their bugs - just as nature intended.
A few more important roles of our microbiome.
Eliminates toxins. Certain benefical bacteria can prevent or inactivate toxins released by harmful bacteria, from entering our blood stream. Some may also inactivate toxic molecules that we ingest.
Digests food and helps with colon and gut health. The majority of our gut microbes live in the colon and some of them specialise in fermenting fiber e.g. in legumes, fruits, and vegetables, and the byproducts of this activity helps to nourish the cells lining our colon.
Some bacteria produce a chemical that provides an energy source for our cells. It also helps to strengthen the connections between the cells of our intestinal lining, reducing the likelihood of a leaky gut.
Supports immune health. This is one of our microbiomes most important roles. Our gut microbes can teach the immune system to recognise and attack harmful invaders. It can determine how quickly we fight off illness e.g. a respiratory infection or the flu.
Anti-inflammatory function. Some bacteria release compounds that have a calming effect, preventing inflammation and keeping the immune system from overreacting.
Supports brain health. Bacteria in the intestine make some of the same molecules that are known to transmit signals in the brain e.g. serotonin (our happy hormone) and melatonin (our sleep hormone) - effecting our mood, behaviour and our sleep.
Increasing evidence supports the primary role of the gut microbiome in influencing stress-response patterns, most notably cortisol (stress hormone) production and its regulation.
Supports metabolic health. Along with what people are choosing to eat, there is more and more research showing the link between obesity, metabolic disease and the microbiome. With the diversity of our microbiome having a direct affect on our metabolism - the lower the diversity, the lower the metabolic rate, the lower the energy levels experienced.
In summary, the gut is our home to optimum health and our microbiome appears to be the heart of that home.
So what creates a healthy microbiome in the first place?
1. Mothers own healthy microbiomes, natural births and breastfeeding set the scene for passing on a healthy microbiome to our babies.
2. Our food and lifestyle choices and exposures.
For many of us, this introduction to life for our babies isn't always possible, that’s okay, (and it wasn’t for my babies either). The body is incredible and the microbiome can be repopulated, keep reading as I share how...
Then what disrupts this complex and intimate system?
13 common microbiome disruptors.
- Processed foods
- Lack of fermentable fibre (see below)
- Unhealthy animal products e.g. that have been raised in poor conditions and fed inferior foods
- Refined and processed sugars
- Medications, antibiotics and contraception
- Unmanaged Stress
- Caesarians at birth
- Formula fed babies
- Over sanitisation / cleanliness of our environment
- Lack of good quality sleep
- Lack of time outdoors
- Chemicals and other toxins in our environment that are designed to wipe out bacteria.
Loving our microbes is a fundamental strategy for disease prevention and for kick-starting our wellbeing. Thankfully it’s not hard. Infact, it’s easy, start with one new choice at a time.
5 easy steps to love our bugs and prevent disease.
- Real food
- Add in more fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir and organic raw foods
- Increase the amount and a diverse range of high fibre foods especially seasonal vegetables, soaked and/or activated nuts and seeds, including sprouted seeds.
- Increase the amount of healthy fats, as shown on this food pyramid.
- Increase organic foods that help reduce exposure to chemicals that wipe out beneficial bugs.
- Herbs, spices and teas including; turmeric, ginger, basil, oregano, thyme, etc., plus green tea.
- Take a good quality probiotic that includes a diverse range of bacteria e.g. prescript assist, biokult or doterra and swap the brand you use from time to time.
- Un-sterilise our world
- Get a dog
- Go Gardening
- Open the windows
- Be outside more
- Wash hands a little less often and stop using hand sanitisers
- Filter water
- Add in essential oils for cleaning, purifying and to support wellbeing
- Use white vinegar to clean where possible
3. Control chemical and toxin exposure
4. Move more
5. Sleep well
Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT): If you or a loved one suffers from a chronic digestive complaint or one you cannot find a solution to, perhaps investigate the possibility of an FMT. A procedure in which your microbiome is replaced with a donors microbiome.
Perhaps there are no good or bad bacteria. That potentially harmful microbes become dangerous once they ‘overpopulate’ or start to outnumber the more beneficial bugs, which can happen when any of the above factors are out of balance. Also consider that there is research that shows some of our so called harmful bugs may in fact have a role in stimulating a healthy immune system and also have a part to play in our microbiome.
While much of the science on the microbiome is in its infancy, the important role it has to play in our wellbeing is not. The microbiome has provided a beneficial relationship to our species for eternity.
What we expose our gut and our microbiome to is going to directly impact our vitality and our ability to ward off chronic illness. And many of these environmental exposures we CAN control. Our health is very much in our own hands.
By improving our diet, eating plenty of bug-loving foods and probiotics, lowering our stress, and exercising regularly, we can support our body’s microbiome, simply. Going to war against 'bugs' is not the answer, we need to respect the intimate relationship that we have evolved with them.
Whatever we are exposing ourselves to daily, let’s consider not only how it protects our physical body, but also how it protects our microbial community. In doing this we will protect our childrens futures and the natural course of our evolution at the same time.
What can you start doing today to nourish your microbiome better? Is it more time outside, opening the windows, eating more fibre rich foods? What will it be? Choose one and start enjoying adding it into your routine.