Want to be healthier? Well sure, there’s your physical body to maintain, but what about the copious amounts of microscopic stuff thriving ON you and IN you?
It’s called the human microbiome and it plays a large role in health by aiding digestion, immune system development, preventing infections and synthesizing essential nutrients such as vitamins (K and B12) and short chain fatty acids.
I, personally, hadn’t even heard about the microbiome until listening to another Rich Roll podcast recently. And we tend not to think about what we can’t even see. It’s massive though, this collection of microbial cells – bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses – numbering in the 100 trillion range, eclipsing human cell count (estimated at ten trillion) by a factor of 10. Also? According to the Canadian Microbiome Initiative, these microbes “encode approximately 100-fold more information than the human genome”.
Crazy, huh? To think we’re more microorganism than human? Here’s a new word to describe what we are: holobiont, meaning “assemblages of different species that form ecological units”. Ara Katz, co-founder of Seed (a venture backed microbiome company), creates a beautiful and colourful image by suggesting to picture yourself as a coral reef. Much more pleasing than accepting you’ve got bugs, bugs and more bugs crawling here, there and everywhere!
But when Katz said that? It was the first time I truly understood the notion that we are all connected, to each other and Mother Nature. I mean, once you realize you’re walking around hosting necessary stuff – that isn’t you – all over and inside, just like a tree say, or a body of water, you start to think, well, where does my body end and the outside world begin?
It’s relatively new, this study of the microbiome, the existence of it just recognized in the late 1990s. The Canadian Microbiome Initiative says, “Until recently the task of studying the human microbiota was daunting, not only because of the sheer number of organisms colonizing the human body, but also because of the difficulties involved in studying colonies of microbes, and the interactions between them in their natural environment. However, with the emergence of the field of metagenomics and the availability of a new generation of genome sequencing platforms, it is now possible to sequence, analyze and characterize complex microbial communities fast and efficiently.”
Prof John Cryan, a microbiome expert from University College Cork, is quoted in The Guardian saying, “It is still a little controversial but for the most part it is thought that we are sterile when we are in utero, and as we are being born, as we emerge through the birth canal from our mums, we get this handover bacteria.” Consequently, a caesarean birth results in a different start, as does being breast-fed or formula-fed. By the time we are about three, our microbiome stabilizes, but our environment, long-term diet, stress, and drugs we take – such as antibiotics – play a role in the health of our microbiome.
Disturbances in your unique microbiome can lead to chronic health conditions such as: obesity, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular disease, as well as autoimmune and gastrointestinal diseases. Neurological and behavioural changes are also associated with the microbiome.
So, what can we do to host the healthiest bunch of bugs possible? Well, because the study of the microbiome is so new – and microbes are so diverse, both within one person and among a population – experts just have a few suggestions for us. Katz from Seed recommends eating a diverse diet that includes 30 different plants/week. My husband B was like, “Whoa! How are we going to keep that many vegetables and fruits on hand and fresh?” Then we noted she said “plants”, so that includes other things that grow, like beans, oats, rice and so on.
Also? Get dirty! Get a dog. Dig in the soil. Get outside and play! One of the best things you can do for your microbiome is to not maintain too sterile of an environment. Phew! No need to vacuum today. Lol.
But this leads to a brief continuation of last blog’s topic A Healthier Planet. It’s been proven that our practice of predominately growing corn, soybeans and wheat and also generously spraying fields with Roundup (glyphosate) has stripped the soil throughout North America of nutrients. A recent article by Jenny Hopkinson at politico.com suggests, “A new idea: If we revive the tiny creatures that make dirt healthy, we can bring back the great American topsoil. But farming culture – and government – aren’t making it easy.” A good reason to buy and eat organic as much as possible, yes?
“Two parts of our diet that are uniquely able to affect the microbiome are probiotics and prebiotics,” says foodinsight.org and we see probiotic and prebiotic supplements for sale everywhere. Keep in mind this is an unregulated industry, so you can’t always believe what’s on the label.
If you have to take antibiotics, foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut can provide that needed probiotic boost. “Vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes like peas and beans are among the best sources of naturally occurring prebiotic fiber,” says foodinsight.org. Most people don’t get enough fiber in their diets – the recommended intake is 25-38 grams/day.
Another proven way to improve your gut microbiome? Exercise! Says a recent research report from the University of Illinois: “Two studies – one in mice and the other in human subjects – offer the first definitive evidence that exercise alone can change the composition of microbes in the gut.”
Bugs. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you gotta live with them, so you may as well be friends, right? They’re doing some pretty heavy lifting for you, so you might as well do a little for them.
Website Picture: Tilda (growing beautiful things atop her head), acrylic on paper 30×22 Jan 2019 by my friend, artist Deborah Worsfold.