Talking about your gut bugs and blaming them for all your problems seems to be all the rage at the moment, which leaves believers enthralled and non-believers rolling their eyes. Is it all hocus-pocus or do gut bugs, or the lack of them have an impact on our health? First, for the non-believers a challenge – find the dodgiest restaurant in town and order some chicken, cooked ‘rare’. The next day you can tell us all about how a microbe called Salmonella, has made your whole body feel. It’s interesting how a bacteria in your gut can have an effect on your whole body, so lets not be so quick to dismiss the effect of less…violent, intestinal critters.
What used to be referred to simply as our gut flora, now has a fancier and more substantial title of gut microbiome. The study of the human microbiome is one of the hottest fields in science right now and the more that is learned about it, the harder it is to find diseases that aren’t linked to it in some way, especially diseases that have also been linked to a western way of living including diet – it all goes hand in hand. Unlike our genes that are fixed, our microbiome can change and be manipulated which is great news. Such is the significance of the microbiome it sometimes referred to as a ‘virtual organ’ or the ‘forgotten organ’.
American researchers have discovered that our appendix, which was always considered a redundant organ, serves as a safety deposit box, our own private stash of good bacteria that can be used to re-populate the gut after a bad case of diarrhoea or illness has decimated our microbes. On average, a person has 10 times the number of microbes living in and on their body, than their own human cells. This approximately equates to 1000 more genes than what is in the human genome. They may be small, but they are mighty in numbers and their impact on health and wellbeing deserves to be understood.
As a kid, anaphylaxis, asthma, diabetes, auto-immune disease or obesity were rare if not un-heard of in my school, but it seems every second school kid these days has at least one of these conditions or some other random ailment and all have links to gut health. As a parent, sending in cupcakes to school on your kid’s birthday has never been harder. For one of my kid’s classes it needed to be dairy, egg, gluten, nut, soy and fructose free. Umm, what’s left? I remember the look of horror on my son’s face when I suggested I make him an egg sandwich for his lunch box. He actually said “Mum, I don’t want to kill my friend,” oh my goodness.
Other diseases that have links to the microbiome are certain cancers, IBS, chrones, anxiety, depression and even autism. I am not for one minute trivialising or downplaying the potential severity of these conditions, pointing the finger at anyone, or ignoring genetics etc, but imagine if you could prevent or change the course of a disease just by adding or removing bugs from your gut. Wouldn’t that be something?
What do gut microbes actually do? Like any living thing they eat and produce waste. For example in our gut, they live off the food we eat (as long as it’s the right type of food) breaking down our food for us making the nutrients more readily available. Some actually produce vitamins that we cannot make ourselves. Some fight off disease causing bugs, produce anti-inflammatory substances and they teach our immune systems to recognise friend from enemy. As it turns out a wide range of good gut bugs are essential for good health.
Before you call BS on any bug producing anything that could have a significant effect on your body, despite my excellent salmonella example, lets look at another microbial waste product that we have all heard of. Pennicillin. Penicillin is actually the waste of Penicillium, a type of mould. Penicillin kills a wide range of bacteria as we all know. Not that it naturally inhabits our bodies, but it’s worth understanding the powerful substances that a microbe can produce.
So the deal is if we are a good host ie, feed them what they like to eat, provide them with shelter and the right living conditions, they will stick around to help us out, get married and have a family, poop vitamins and coach our immune system etc.
Part of the problem today is not just keeping our bugs happy, but it’s getting them to start with. They have to get in there somehow. Babies are born sterile – well I should say before they are born they are sterile. Our journey into the outside world is our first inoculation with around 300 different types of microbes (try not to think about it). Skin to skin with our mum is the second, and then breastfeeding comes in a close third – and please understand this isn’t passing judgement on anyone who was unable to do these things, it’s just a fact worth understanding. Generally speaking in the western world caesarean rates have increased, and breastfeeding rates have decreased and with the over and incorrect use of antibiotics, low fibre diets and fanatical cleanliness, we are destroying our gut and body flora, and some kids simply aren’t getting any to begin with. Did you know that babies cannot digest complex sugars despite it being a large portion of breast milk? But guess what does digest it? Yep, it feeds and supports the developing gut micro flora. Pretty amazing. Incidentally, increasing numbers of mothers who give birth by c-section and related healthcare professionals who are aware of the importance of the microbiome, are ‘seeding’ the baby with the mother’s secretions shortly after birth to help kick start their immune system. Again, try not to think about it.
There is increasing evidence to support that asthma, allergies, intolerances and auto-immune diseases are all stem from our bodies not being challenged with good and bad bugs from an early age. We are so clean inside and out these days that the microbiome isn’t there to teach our immune system friend from foe, so when anything comes along it just freaks out and even attacks itself. I like to think of good gut bugs like a good army. They of course fight against the bad army and they are good at picking them out in the crowd and killing them. Feed your good army lots of whole foods like fresh fruit, veg and whole grains (prebiotics) to keep them strong and growing. It doesn’t matter that your mother may have given you the juiciest birth in the world, or breastfed you until you were 48 months old, when you stop feeding your good army the right food they dwindle. This then gives the bad army a chance to take over, and they don’t mind eating processed, low fibre food. In fact they like it. Antibiotics despite saving millions of lives, don’t discriminate against good and bad bacteria, they just wipe the whole lot out.
So how do we get more of the good guys in us? Well, we eat them. This again is a problem because of how food is in western countries. Thanks to industrialisation and mass food production the onus of whether the food we eat is safe, no longer falls on the consumer, but on the producer, so the safest thing to do is kill all the life in it lest get sued. That is why food can last in a packet for years without changing. It has no life in it. Even fermented products that are known to naturally contain pro-biotics, when packaged commercially are heat treated and therefore all the microbes are killed. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any nutritive benefit, they just won’t have any pro-biotics. Many of the good bugs live naturally on fruit and veg, but again in a commercial setting when things are pre-washed (usually indicating the use of pesticides), they are washed in a chlorine solution designed to destroy microbes. This is where eating from your garden can be extra beneficial.
Before refrigeration, fermentation was the most common form of food preservation, and in fact is one of the oldest methods of food preservation in the world. Before you all turn your nose up at the idea of eating something that is fermented, keep in mind that wine, beer and cider are a product of fermentation. Fermented foods and foods that will add to your microbiome include various pickled and fermented veg, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, some cheeses, sourdough, yogurt and miso. Most of these are so easy to make yourself, and are a good use of organic gardeners abundance.
The practice of good hand hygiene has been hammered into us and embraced by most, and certainly will help reduce the spread of infections diseases such as coughs, colds and tonsillitis when they are around. But seriously, we don’t need to lather ourselves in hand sanitiser to kill 99% of germs all the time, especially in our homes. It doesn’t just get rid of “germs” but it also gets rid of the good bugs on our skin, all of which help to keep us healthy. Dirt isn’t as dirty as we have been lead to believe, and while I’m not advocating letting your kids eat dirt, or being filthy, I am saying that trying to raise them in a sterile environment devoid of any microbial exposure is having the opposite effect to what we thought it would. Soap and water is fine, and so is playing outside and getting dirty. Us gardeners know that bio-diversity is good for the garden, well it turns out it is good for the body as well.
The Human Microbiome Project (similar to the Human Genome Project) aims to map and identify the full extent of the microbiome including its role in health and disease, and to date what they have found is that specific microbes only occur or occur in greater numbers in individuals with certain diseases. There are far to many to list but it does make for some interesting reading. To date they have isolated around 3000 microbial genome sequences from the human microbiome. Interestingly it has also been discovered that if you give a thin mouse a fat mouse’s microbes, the thin mouse will get fat!! What??! How is this possible? Note to self – get my hands on some thin persons microbes.
I haven’t addressed pro-biotics in pill form. They have a place, and they are a quick fix, but since when has anything good come easy. As we now understand, unless you are feeding your bugs they won’t stick around so in that respect it is a short-term solution.
In a nutshell what can we do to look after our bugs? Feed them real food that is alive like fruit, veg and wholegrains. Top their numbers up by eating fermented foods, stop eating packet or processed foods, and stay clean but not to the point of being sterile, and that especially goes for what you put in your mouth.
So there you go. What will you say next time someone blames something on their microbiome? “It’s all hocus-pocus,” or “quick eat this kimchi, your critters are starving”?