Let’s talk about Gut baby, Let’s talk about you and me... ok, if any of you reading this know what song I’m singing, you win bonus points! But seriously, let’s talk about the gut and the microbiome, and why we care so much about gut health these days. Perhaps you have been hearing many people talking about gut health and the microbiome, but don’t know much more than that. In this article, I will go over what the microbiome is and how it contributes to our overall health.
Trillions of microbial organisms live symbiotically within the human body. This includes bacteria, yeasts and other Eukarya, archaea (primitive single-cell organisms), fungi, protozoa and non-living viruses (bacteriophages). Human cells make up 43% of the human body. That means we are more microbe than human! These microbes are found all over the body; eyes, eyelashes, nasal passage, skin, mouth, digestive tract, vagina, brain, ears….everywhere! And while we supply them with a lush environment to live in, they help us with some of our most vital functions. In the last 10-15 years countless studies have surfaced, all pointing to how incredibly valuable a healthy and diverse microbiome is. Studies have found that those awesome, little microbes are responsible for the amount of calories and nutrients we take from our food, a person’s mood, athletic endurance, cognitive ability, the strength of our immune system, and so much more. We would not be able to survive without them, which in my opinion makes our microbiota another organ.
My first real introduction to the world of the microbiome was in my first years as a nurse. I took care of at least a hundred patients with a C.diff infection. Clostridium Difficile, or C. Diff, is a common bacteria that lives in many peoples' guts. When in balance this bacteria does not cause any problems, however, after receiving antibiotics and killing off the “good” microbes and creating an imbalance, C.Diff grows out of proportion to other microbes and wreaks havoc on the intestines. It causes severe diarrhea with 10-15 watery bowel movements a day, accompanying cramping and inflammation, and can lead to death. It’s no joke! Oddly enough, treatment for C.Diff is MORE antibiotics. It’s terrible, and for many, it’s intractable, meaning, nothing can stop it. EXCEPT… a fecal transplant. Yes, that’s what I said. A fecal transplant is achieved by taking healthy stool, processing it, encapsulating it and the patient then ingests the fecal matter from another person. I know it sounds gross, but it cures C. Diff 99% of the time almost immediately. Trust me, if you have C.Diff, you will do whatever it takes to cure it. This is what piqued my interest in learning more about the human microbiome, and more specifically, the microbes of the gut and their fascinating functions in the body.
The most common thing I see in my practice is evidence of dysbiosis. Dysbiosis is just a fancy term for imbalanced gut microbes. It makes sense that this is so common considering our diet and lifestyle in good ol’ America. Let me explain. These microbes are happy in their home of starches, fibers, sugars, and other nutrition. They thrive on soluble fiber. Soluble fiber feeds these microbes so that they can ferment and produce healthful short-chain fatty acids (basically the god of good health). They are very social and want to hang out with a very diverse crew of other microbe homies. The more variety of species, the merrier.
Here’s where the problem starts. We became a little slap happy with the amount of antibiotics prescribed in the 80s and 90s (I think we have finally realized our oopsie). Ear ache? Antibiotics. Flu? Oh, here try antibiotics (P.S. Flu is a virus, antibiotics are for bacterial infections). Sinus infection? Take this Z-pack. This overprescription of antibiotics has totally screwed our gut health. One round of antibiotics has been found to alter your gut diversity and health for almost a year. Two rounds of antibiotics will alter your microbes for 5 years, and more than 3 rounds in a lifetime will most likely alter your microbes for the rest of your life. Once they are gone, it is VERY challenging to get them back. Here’s the scary part, babies receive their inoculation of microbes from mama during childbirth through the vaginal canal and breast milk. If mama is starting from a place of imbalanced and low diversity in her microbes, that little babes is too, and we typically stick with the microbes we were given from mom.
The compounding factor is our diet. Remember when I mentioned that the gut microbes love to live in an environment full of fiber? Fiber comes from veggies, legumes, and whole grains (I’ll get more into this). Well, most people in the United States are eating about ⅓ to ½ of what is considered a healthy amount of fiber. Most Americans' diet only consists of 6% of their food being from fruits and vegetables. Whoa. We have become so removed from what food is supposed to be. The grocery stores are lined with aisles of boxed, canned, and frozen food.
Maybe you are pondering what the big deal of less microbial diversity is. Here is one example of the harm it’s causing. Do you suffer from anxiety? Or maybe you know a few people who have anxiety or depression? Know any kids with anxiety or depression? The gut-brain connection is undeniable at this point. Stress affects microbial diversity, and lack of microbial diversity affects mental health. It’s been proven over and over again. In one study they found mice that received various strains of lactobacillus functioned better in their swim test and subsequently had a higher level of GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter that slows brain signals down and effectively reduces anxiety and increases logic. We need more GABA in our lives. Here’s how to get it.
Not all is lost, there are things we can do right meow to start helping our little gut microbe friends. The NUMBER ONE thing you can do is start eating more vegetables. I’m not kidding. Your vegetable intake should be closer to 70% of your diet. French fries don’t count! And the more varied your vegetable species are, the better. We often gravitate towards the veggies we always eat. Next time you go to the store, pick up something that you normally wouldn't. It will give you a reason to find some new recipes. And guess what? Medicinal Herbs count! (hint hint, see your local herbalist Nurse Nikki for a personally formulated tea!) The amazing thing about eating more vegetables is you will naturally be eating more fiber. Fiber helps to create a welcoming environment for more microbes to stick around. You really want to be eating about 25-30 grams of fiber a day. Stop eating boxed, canned, bottled, and processed foods, or at least limit them… it is killing us slowly, one hundred microbes at a time.
Here’s another little Nurse Nikki’s Plant Medicine plug: Oftentimes you can avoid antibiotics if you catch things early. Herbs can be instrumental in stopping an infection before it gets to the point of needing to take yet another round of antibiotics. Sometimes, you just need antibiotics, but if you notice the very beginnings of a urinary tract infection, a sinus infection, respiratory infection, etc., hit me up. I can help you save your microbe buddies. And of course, if you want some guidance in improving your gut health, I’m here with bells on ready to serve.