As my regular readers know, I recently completed my Integrative Nutrition Health Coach program @Institite for Integrative Nutrition. One topic we covered during my education was the microbiome. Well, I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but I find this area of self-knowledge amazingly interesting, therefore the topic of today’s rather long and detailed post. Please hang with me to the end, you will be so glad you did!
So, we probably ought to start with some terminology, just in case you’re not aware of all of it.
- Microbiome – this is the collective name for all the bacteria that live on and in us. And, there is a lot of it. There are bacteria in our ears, on our skin, in our eyes – the back of our eye-lids even. And of course, the majority of these little gems live in our digestive system. They are associated with all sort of health giving benefits, so do not dash off and find some antibiotics to kill the little guys!
- Antibiotics are substances, primarily pharmaceutical, that kill bacteria. The use of Penicillin is not yet a 100 year old practice, and yet, mainstream medicine is now realizing we may have overdone a good thing, and our overly clean environments have reduced our resistance to disease! History shows us remedy, evidence that traditional medicine used natural remedies to attain ‘antibiotic’ ends hundreds of years ago, through foods and herbs.
- Probiotic – Ideally, these are naturally fermented foods. The most common foods with probiotics in them include yogurt (beware the sugar content of commercial varieties), kefir, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and lacto-fermented veggies. Sourdough bread is made with ‘wild’ bacteria, and one of my local micro breweries mades a sour beer that I love, which incorporates wild bacteria. Bacteria are so small that they really are everywhere. Probiotics are also available in pill form. But, we can’t live on pills alone, food versions are always more healthful.
- Prebiotic refers to the foods we eat which specifically benefit the little guys in our gut. There are many websites with lists of prebiotic foods, I suggest you check out one or two of them, and just aim for more of those foods in your diet. They range from asparagus to onions and garlic to chia seeds and dandelion leaves. In general our friendly bacteria like lots of fiber, plant-based, real-food fiber, and interestingly, fiber that humans can’t digest. So, give it to them, and they will do their part to help to keep you healthy, happy, and energetic.
- Epigenetics is another term on the periphery of the whole microbiome discussion. Epigenetics is the study of our genes and what turns them on and off. Science is learning that the genes we inherit do not force us into the sicknesses of our parents. That is pretty cool information! Many genes in our body can be turned on or off, to be helpful or harmful – based on our lifestyle choices. So, for example, if your family has a tendency or history of a particular disease, it is not automatic and written in stone that you will develop that disease. However, if you live a lifestyle – eat the “Standard American Diet” (SAD), live like a couch potato, and so on and so forth, then you are likely to turn on those genes which create diseases in your body. BUT, if you choose a natural, whole-food based veggie focused diet, you have just as much opportunity to turn off those genes. There are studies that indicate even if you’ve started down that undesirable path that by making changes in your lifestyle you can return to vitality again.
I recently read a book by Dr. David Perlmutter, Brain Maker, what a great book. In this research-based book he explores a multitude of diseases, from MS to Alzheimers, to autism and brain fog; and links all of them to a compromised microbiome. What??? Yes, the little guys in our gut provide a host of services for us which, when they are able to complete in their entirety, generate health. When they are unable to complete these tasks, we begin down a path of dis-ease.
Which brings me to a very interesting thought, at least in my mind, that I’d like to share with you. Ever since I learned about the solar system (a bunch of balls going around a sun) and then later about molecules (a bunch of balls going around a nucleus) I have equated that thought of systems nested inside other systems. If you’ve ever seen the old Dr. Seuss movie, Horton Hears a Who, you might be getting close to the idea I’ve always thought was really going on. Consider for a moment that we are like the Who’s in Whoville – and our entire solar system is just a molecule in the universe. Ok, that’s as far as I’ll take weird thought number 1. Now on to weird thought number 2.
Again, when I was little, I used to watch a TV show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I couldn’t tell you the episode or anything like that, but I recall learning about birds that frequented the backs of certain animals in Africa, and the reason they did so was because they ate the bugs that lived in the fur of those antelopes or whatever they were. Interesting. And then, on Jacques Cousteau I learned about these fish that latched onto other bigger fish, and ate stuff off their skin. Maybe you’re starting to see where all these weird thoughts are going now.
In completely non-science terms, just from the point of view of the concept, consider this. We have entire communities of bacteria living in various areas on and in our bodies. For the most part they are desirable communities. In many instances if you chase away the desirable community what moves in brings dark and ugly consequences with it. So, it is worth while for us to support and encourage the mutualistic symbiotic relationship we have with our little guys. (Check out this great video on symbiotic relationships!)
Now that we have this mutual understanding, let’s return to a conversation about the microbiome. Just think for a moment about all these little guys living all over the outside and inside of us and providing us immense benefit in the process. According to Dr. Perlmutter, they support digestion, minimize inflammation, play a role in the elimination of brain fog, autism, Alzheimers, and other brain related dis-eases. They are even believed to influence your mood!
Here is what Dr. Oz has to say on the topic:
We now recognize that our gut bacteria are involved in some pretty important life-sustaining functions including:
- Balancing the immune system.
- Controlling inflammation.
- Ridding the body of potentially damaging toxins.
- Making brain chemicals like serotonin, the “feel-good” transmitter.
- Manufacturing vitamins.
- Harvesting nutrients from food.
- Keeping the gut wall from becoming “leaky.”
Leaky? Wow, now I feel like I’m being compared to an old car! The shame of it is that leaky gut is a huge problem in America. Leaky gut occurs when the bacteria lining our intestines are harmed and can no longer provide a layer of protection from all the food-like substances we shovel down our gullet each day. Then some bits of those food-like substances, which our body does not recognize as food, sneak through into our bloodstream. This creates an emergency response to save ourselves from the alien invasion, and inflammation develops. Now, it you ate one Twinkie in September of 2001, and never ate another one, there would probably not be an issue today. But, if you have been eating Twinkies, pizza, cakes, frozen dinners, fast food of any sort, lattes, energy drinks and all similar manner of adulterated, food-like substances; well, your body probably can’t keep up with getting rid of it all. So, in an effort to protect you from the ‘alien’ matter the body stores it away, deep in a fat cell somewhere, and all along the route, inflammation occurs like a screaming banshee throughout your blood vessels, muscles, and even in your brain.
This whole idea can become quite overwhelming. Perhaps at this moment you are realizing it has been days, weeks, or years since you ate something natural, something unprocessed, not packaged in a box or bag, frozen or canned, delivered in a box, or picked up through a window. What can you do?
- Drink lots of plain water
- Eat living foods like greens, veggies, fruits, nuts, beans and all manner of ‘recognizable-from-day-of-harvest-until-it-arrived-on-your-fork food.’ Keep in mind that living foods will rot if you don’t eat them! Things like Twinkies will last eternity, they therefore do not count as food.
- Add prebiotic and probiotic foods to your diet
- Become aware of the danger zones in your grocery store – and then avoid them.
OK, I think I went down a rabbit hole, but, it is all related. I want to end with a final thought that is driving my husband mad. In the book, Brain Maker, I ran across an interesting statistic which I shared with my husband. He is most unwilling to accept it as fact, so went off and did his own research, and confirmed the figure I shared with him, so, here goes my minor attempt to give you a clue about how much bacteria live in your gut.
Interestingly, if you dig into some of the literature and scientific reports, it appears that the number of microbes, bacteria or little guys, whichever you prefer to call them, has been dwindling over the last 60 years. See table 2 at this reference. Again, I’m not a scientist, but I’d bet if we did just a little looking around we ‘d discover that our SAD has been killing our friendly and helpful little guys.
I know the prevalence of Roundup has impacted our gut health. The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, and it is used on virtually every genetically modified crop grown in America. Since the 1990’s Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup, has been encouraging farmers of crops like corn and wheat, even if their crop is not GMO, to spray a few weeks ahead of harvest, this ensures a nice dry crop, and speeds time to harvest. Ok, let’s think about this for a moment. A chemical that has finally been proven in court to cause cancer is as a matter of routine sprayed on our food crops, just days before harvest. Yuck. Oh, and here is where I casually mention that glyphosate acts like an antibiotic in our digestive tract. There is even some suggestion in the literature lately that all these gluten sensitivities may actually be a result of glyphosate in the food, not gluten. And, one final comment, consider for a moment, if glyphosate is killing the microbiome in our body; what is it doing to the soil our food is grown in? It is slowly turning vast agricultural areas into dead desert land, devoid of the microbes needed to convert minerals in the dirt to molecules the plants can use to grow and become the food we eat.
Ok, back to that figure again, it is estimated that the feces of a healthy human contains between 24 and 50% microbes, bacteria and other sort, all those little guys who do so much for our health and wellness. This means we loose trillions of them on a daily basis. My husband is quite stunned by that, his estimates would be that maybe about a measuring cup worth of what comes out the other end is bacteria. That my friend is a lot of bacteria. Hence the suggestion that we eat foods high in probiotics, and filled with little guy sustaining fiber in the form of prebiotic foods.
So, now for the reason for this post in the first place. I have been fermenting all sorts of things! This week I used some store-bought organic Greek yogurt and my Instant Pot to make myself a quart of yogurt with grass-fed milk from a local Amish dairy. Oh my!!! There was none of that tanginess normally associated with yogurt. Today I’m making 2 more quarts, can’t wait to eat it!
Then, I also used some of the yogurt made the other day and filtered out 4 tablespoons worth so I could make my first ever batch of lacto-fermented veggies, I did some onion, cauliflower, and carrots. They will be ready to taste tomorrow.
A couple weeks ago one of my health coaching clients and I made some naturally fermented sauerkraut, it is ready to taste after 7 days. My husband and I like it better as it goes along even further, so I’m guessing about 14 days of fermentation is our taste preference. Today I started another batch, this one is a little fancier, it has some onion, dill and caraway seeds. Home made sauerkraut is so very good for you, it is chock full of probiotics and fiber, and very economical to make.
What is my point with all this fermentation? I don’t really know. I wonder if my son’s digestive issues following a less than well done turkey were more a result of a weakened microbiome than anything else since 4 of us ate the same food and only the one who eats a SAD diet got sick. I’ve always been intimidated at the idea of fermenting foods – but, in the grocery store they are pretty expensive. Consider this: my grass-fed Amish milk is $6.00/gallon. I can purchase 1 quart (1/4 gallon) of organic (not-grass-fed) yogurt at Walmart for about $5.00. By making yogurt at home, I can make what would cost $20 from the store for only $6.00! Now that is great economy! Let’s take a look at sauerkraut, it is made with cabbage and salt. I purchased a head of organic cabbage for about $1.50. It weighted about 2 pounds, and made just over a quart of sauerkraut. I bet you can’t get naturally fermented sauerkraut for $1.50 per quart. More economy!
And finally, if we spend the time and money to eat well, we will support our health, and ultimately spend far less time in doctor’s offices. What we put in our mouth has been proven to eliminate many chronic diseases and reduce or remove the need for prescription drugs. I want to have more life in my days. I’m in, what about you?
Your health and wellness is at a cross-roads.
Our government has allowed the financial interests of the food and agriculture industries to drive what is cheapest and most plentiful. Now it is time for you to make a choice. You have within you the knowledge of what is good and what is not; I plead with you to choose what is good, and live.
Learn more about a healthy lifestyle here.