What I’m about to tell you is either going to comfort you, intrigue you, or freak you out: we are not alone!!
Did you know that only 1 in 10 of your cells is actually human- the rest belong to microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi? There are 100 times more microbial genes in your body than human genes!
This population of microorganisms is referred to as our microbiome, and while we have many different ecosystems of them in places like our skin, our scalp, and our armpits, the majority of them live in our guts. We have a symbiotic relationship with them, and their presence maintains normal immune function, gut barrier integrity, motility, metabolism, and nutrient absorption. If this ecosystem falls under attack by things such as poor diet or stress, our GI function and susceptibility to a host of disease states, infections, IBD and colitis, takes a turn for the worse.
The Hygiene Hypothesis – or Old Friends Hypothesis, believes that a great many diseases (specifically autoimmune diseases) and their heightened prevalence today is the direct result of living in a more and more sterile world, disconnected from nature and the richer microbial lives of our ancestors.
The microbiome and world of microorganisms at large is incredibly fascinating. Up until a few short years ago, their roles in our lives went largely overlooked, and now the interplay of human with microorganism is being studied in every applicable field, from immunology to psychology.
Psychology? Why yes! Researchers have noted that behavioral changes can alter gut bacterial populations, and altering gut bacterial populations can also produce shifts in mood and behavior! Have you heard of toxoplasmosis, the parasite responsible for the rule preventing pregnant women from cleaning cat litter boxes? Toxoplasmosis has been demonstrated to influence an infected person’s behavior!
Aside from influencing our behavior, microbuddies teach our immune systems how to recognize invaders from friendly bacteria and Self, and help us produce anti-inflammatory compounds and chemicals that fight off other bugs that might make us sick. As gut bacteria ferment their food, they produce a fatty acid called butyrate that has recently been shown to play a role in regulating T-cells (cells of the immune system). This fermentative environment also produces an alkaline environment in the colon that makes it inhospitable for pathogenic bacteria. If you have an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria in your gut, it can be amazingly difficult and take years to fix. I’m not kidding.
Fortunately there’s a lot you can do to improve your gut flora population. Most of us probably could use a little boost to our inner ecosystems via a few tweaks to our diet to make sure that we are feeding them what they need to thrive and protect us. This food comes by way of fiber and resistant starch, otherwise known as prebiotics, which are indigestible to us. Eating a variety and quantity of plant fiber will give these guys something to munch on. If any of us are on low carb diets that don’t contain a lot of fibrous plant matter, or even high carb diets that don’t contain a lot of plant matter, we run the risk of starving off the good bacteria in our guts. Some of them will turn to eating the mucosal lining of our guts! AH!
Probiotics are good to supplement with, but they won’t enhance your good-bacteria populations, they will only pass through and make the party more fun while they are in transit. Prebiotics are what is really needed to start upping your own good gut-friend numbers. Again, prebiotics are insoluble and digestion resistant fibers and starches. Resistant starch is also very easy to supplement with and definitely easier than getting enough of it via your diet, especially if you are a low carb eater. Resistant starch does not affect your blood sugar; it will not even toss you out of ketosis. Not only that, but it will improve your carbohydrate handling, as it has been showing to do for a lot of people experimenting with it, lowering fasting blood glucose levels and keeping blood sugar spikes from starchy meals within a better range. It’s kind of the new hot thing right now. If you haven’t handled carbohydrates well in the past, this might enable you to now.
If you would like to start supplementing with resistant starch, purchase a bag of potato starch, NOT POTATO FLOUR, and work up to 4 tbsp a day. Start slowly though, as in 1 tbsp a day for a week or two, then add 1 tbsp per week until you get to 4 per day. It can make you pretty gassy. If you would like to read more about resistant starch, Richard Nikoley has been writing extensively about it on his blog (often contains expletives though, so careful if that bothers you).
Hopefully I didn’t just freak anyone out. Having a healthy microbiome is the proverbial ace up your sleeve and we should be doing what we can to take care of these extremely tiny guys, be a good host, and stop killing off the good ones. I would recommend that you consider the effects of antibiotics before you decide to take them. They are really important for getting rid of nasty bacterial infections that the body can’t clear and can be life saving, but they are often over-used and over prescribed. Don’t be afraid to discuss your options with your doctor.
You might also stop using hand sanitizer to make sure you don’t catch a cold. The common cold is a VIRUS and anti-bacterial gels do not kill viruses, so you’re going to get sick anyway. There’s a time and place for sterility for sure- don’t get me wrong, like the hospital and the tattoo parlor, typically where risks of infections and open wounds are concerned, but whipping out the Purell because you touched a pen at a bank or saw a guy sneeze is probably quite literally overkill.
For more on the microbiome visit this website http://humanfoodproject.com/ and if you are interested in testing your own microbiome and maybe comparing it to others who have joined, you can donate to them, they are a non-profit organization called The Human Food Project. They will send you a kit, they have different package options, you swab some stuff, send it back, and get a detailed analysis of your own microplanet. http://humanfoodproject.com/americangut/
This is a great little cartoon from NPR about our microbiome, called The Invisible Universe, very informative plus it’s very cute and entertaining.