I heard Tim Spector’s talk at the College of Medicine’s “Food. The forgotten medicine” conference earlier this month. He is mad about gut microbes and health, and has written a book about it The Diet Myth.
We are covered in microbes – single-celled organisms that are invisible to the human eye and the oldest form of life on Earth. These micro-organisms live on us and in us – with a wealth residing in our digestive tracts. Each of us has a unique gut microbial blueprint – passed, in part, onto us by our mother during a natural birth, but dependent upon our genetic make-up (Goodrich et al. 2014). When we are healthy our microbes are diverse and abundant, and responsible for immune system development and long-term health (Romero et al. 2014).
99% of our microbes are beneficial.
These “friendly gut microbes”, if you will, enable us to breathe, to digest our food, manage our weight, regulate our immune system and resist disease (Stearns at el. 2011).
Altered gut microbial diversity, or dysbiosis, plays a role in chronic and systemic disease, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, IBS, Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (Kinross et al. 2014), autoimmune disease e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, MS, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Grave’s diseases (Amy et al. 2013) and cancer (Schwabe and Jobin 2013).
It’s therefore worrying that we have grown-up being afraid of “germs” and systematically kill-off these life-giving, protective microbes with hand sanitiser, bleach, antibiotics. We can also cause dysbiosis through infection, lifestyle and diet.
Killing-off or not looking after our microbiome has long-term health consequences. In children, for example, taking antibiotics between 0 and 2years old is linked to increased chance of childhood obesity, growth impairment and allergies (Cox and Blaser 2014). We’ve likely all had antibiotics, and kids are given them routinely because of the plethora of infections they tend to get. If you must have antibiotics, you can buffer the effects by using a good probiotic and ensuring a diet and lifestyle that promotes the re-establishment of a healthy microbiome.
Our gut microbiome can be thought of as an ecosystem – a biological community of organisms that interact with one another and respond to the physical environment.. A high biodiversity of organisms, relative to climate, is characteristic of a healthy ecosystem – be it a coral reef, tropical rainforest, lake, field, desert or our guts. A high diversity of organisms ensures that each niche, or need, is fulfilled and gives back to the system. As such, an ecosystem is more resilient to short term environmental change and stresses, and therefore less susceptible to disease. Optimal climate is necessary for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
The same is true for our guts. To ensure optimal health, we need to nurture our gut microbiome by providing a favourable environment for the long-term (Xu and Knight 2015). In general, this means a whole foods diet including a diverse range of vegetables – including the pre-biotic containing ones such as Jerusalem Artichoke which help to provide the food for our microbes. The phytonutrients found in plants are irreplaceable and essential for good health – make sure you eat a high diversity of vegetables. Include some nuts and seeds, fish (for your omega 3 essential fatty acids) and whole grains and dairy. Limit red meat.
A diet high in processed food is high in sugar, trans fats, saturated fat, additives and refined carbohydrates and is undeniably bad for your health, and your microbiome. A bad diet can can drop your gut microbial diversity by 40%, which of course compromises your health and sets you up for disease.
Want to know what your gut is doing? It can be really useful if you have a chronic illness. I had mine done by a naturopathic doctor when I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It certainly helped me understand my health and take control of my health. Though it seems like you need a referral by a doctor, which can be very difficult to get, visit www.mapmygut.com to find out what’s going on with you’re microbiome.
In the mean time, look after your microbiome!
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