“All disease begins in the gut”– Hippocrates
The gut microbiome is set to be all the rage in 2016. Large scale research studies are in effect, dietitians are pulling their focus to a diet that encourages a diverse intestinal environment, and scientists now actually consider gut microbiota an organ, an acquired one, but an organ nonetheless. As humans, we are covered and filled with tiny microbes on our skin, in our nose and mouth, and throughout our intestinal tract, living in a symbiotic and, mostly, harmonious relationship. These microbes outnumber our human DNA 10-fold, and the number of genes in all of those microbes’ genomes is roughly 100 times greater than the number in our human cell genome. Whoa. According to the group “Gut Microbiota for Health,”
“Our gut microbiota contains tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria with more than 3 million genes (150 times more than human genes). Microbiota can, in total, weigh up to 2 kg. One third of our gut microbiota is common to most people, while two thirds are specific to each one of us. In other words, the microbiota in your intestine is like an individual identity card.”
What this means, in essence, is that while any two people in the world, no matter age, sex, location, will share %99.9 of the same DNA, only about %30 of their gut microbiota is the same. Two-thirds of your gut microbiota is as unique as a fingerprint! You can see why scientists are so excited about this.
I first learned about the gut microbiome in 2012. My brother-in-law has a rare disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), which causes inflammation and fibrosis of bile ducts inside and/or outside the liver. 75% of individuals with PSC also suffer from a form of irritable bowel disease, mostly ulcerative colitis. He was winding up in the hospital approximately every 6 months with complications from colitis, and Monica desperately wanted to take him off one of the medicines she thought was causing this. Having just returned home from a recent hospitalization, Moni was especially on top of her research game and called to tell me she had a plan: “It’s called fecal transplant. I’m going to give him my poop.” I pulled my car off the freeway and sat slack jawed while she explained the process, mostly responding with highly intelligent comments like, “oh my god,” “ewwwww,” and, “huh.” You know what, though? She nailed it. They went through this process before the FDA decided to take it over, and it worked. He’s had very few flare-ups of ulcerative colitis since then, and when he did a couple of years ago, she just gave him her excellent bacteria again. Now that the FDA has stepped in, fecal transplant with a known donor is regulated and difficult to access unless it’s treating c-dif, but that’s a story for another time.
A few short years ago, it was the commonly held belief that infants were born sterile, with no exposure to bacteria, fungi, or other microorganisms, but recent research has indicated that the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus may have bacteria present that are important in establishing the early immune response. For sure, during vaginal birth, the infants microbiome is colonized by skin bacteria from the birth canal and from the colon of the mother, and from there it’s off to the races. Your gut microbiome is a direct indication of the environment you were raised in (country, city, suburbs), the food you ate (McDonald’s, home cooked, processed, organic), and whether vaginal birth vs. c-section/breast feeding vs. formula.
Why, you might be tempted to ask, does this matter to me? I became interested because they have linked response to chemotherapy to intestinal microbiota, and I have a minty fresh colon that I want to really treat right this time around. Here’s what they say about the chemo thing:
- “Researchers have shown that the efficacy of one of the molecules most often used in chemotherapy relies to an extent on its capacity to mobilise certain bacteria from the intestinal microbiota toward the bloodstream and lymph nodes. Once inside the lymph nodes, these bacteria stimulate fresh immune defences which then enhance the body’s ability to fight the malignant tumour” Gut Microbiota for Health
This could be a game changer for people receiving chemo. My response to chemo was impressive, and I’m set on developing a super microbiome in the off chance I ever have to do it again. Now, why does the gut microbiome matter to you? Because, we are absolutely, positively products of our environment and diet, and guess what? You really are what you eat, and for that matter, what you eat off the floor. Oh no or yay, depending on who is reading this, but your diet and environment matter. Recent studies have linked certain bacteria and/or lack of diversity in the gut microbiome to obesity, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, fibromyalgia, other auto immune diseases, and some cancers. As well, variations in the gut microbiota are linked to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other stress related psychiatric disorders. Do you get where I’m going with this? 80% of your immune response is in your microbiome. Your helpful, lovely, dynamic gut microbiota help you to digest your food, in the production of certain vitamins, to combat the aggression of other microorganisms, and to modulate inflammation related with numerous disease processes. As you can see, they are busy, and they are important. It is suggested that a future is imminent where “microbiota typing” will become a standard of medical care. Analysis of the urine and feces would reveal the unique make up of an individuals microbial community, which might indicate why an individual was sick and what may make them well. Researchers are seeking pathways to develop antibiotics that are targeted rather than global to decrease disruption of the gut microbiome, and someday we might be able to deliver drug therapy’s that are geared to your unique intestinal environment.
Research indicates that the human gut microbiome has been drastically altered by our addiction to processed foods, antibiotics, and an increased number of elective c-sections. City living doesn’t help much either. People born in rural areas, in the vicinity of livestock, appear to have a more diverse and healthy bacterial load. We are basically sanitizing ourselves into ill health. The good news is that our microbiome is affected with each meal, and that a recent Harvard study showed that the gut microbiome can be drastically altered in a few days with a significant alteration in diet. We actually have control over the bodies first line of immune defense through diet and a discretionary use of antibiotics. That is phenomenally exciting news! With the myriad life events I have minimal ability to impact, I love to embrace the things I can actually affect, and after my year of living cancerously, I am all about impacting my healthy positively on every level.
So now that you know that you are much more inorganic than organic material, what in the world do you do? Get down and dirty with your diet, darling. As per usual, it all comes down to what you stick in your mouth. Seriously, don’t forget that we have a skin microbiome, too. Haha. Sorry. Moving on:
- Fermented foods: plain yogurt with active cultures, kimchi, sauerkraut
- High fiber foods: especially the fructan and cellulose fibers. The rough fibers. The parts you don’t usually eat. Stalks of broccoli, the tough end of asparagus, leeks, the parts that get stuck in your teeth.
- Foods that are low in sugar and unprocessed
- Farm to table: get your food with bacteria on it! Buy your food as close to the source as you can. Austin is rich with urban farms and farmer’s markets serviced by numerous local vendors. Utilize these resources here or in your own community.
There you have it. My new obsession, and the good news is, you can get involved in all of this exciting research! From the creators of the Human Genome Project comes the Human Microbiome Project. You can add your unique gut bacterial composition to that of thousands of others in America and around the world and get results of your data sent back to you. Find all this info at The Human Food Project.
P.S. 1 year ago today I was diagnosed with cancer. Wow, just wow.
P.P.S. 3 years ago today my uncle George died from complications from multiple myeloma. I miss him.