The term “microbiome” has become a buzzword in the last couple of years sparked by new advances in genetic research demonstrating its vast role in our health. One might think that the microbiome is a relatively recent discovery. Perhaps it is in the West, but the East has acknowledged its importance for centuries.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine the gut is considered the seat of health. When a patient comes in for consultation the gut is always the first thing to be evaluated. Even Hippocrates stated 2500 years ago that “all disease begins in the gut”.
We can think of the microbiome as the gut’s ecological system that is composed of communities of microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, eukaryotes, archaea, and fungi.
If you think of your gut as Planet Earth, your microbiome is analogous to all the jungles, rainforests, reefs, and deserts. As vital as those ecosystems are to Planet Earth, your microbiome is equally vital to your gut health.
Are We Born With Our Microbiome?
While we are born with a microbiome, it is not robust. Our microbiome develops over the first few years of life and is impacted by many factors including how you were born, if you were breast or bottle fed, and where you were born.
Genetic factors shape our microbiome as well. So far, we have found two human genes that have a key role in our microbiome and each of these genes influences the abundance of certain strains of beneficial bacteria.
Further studies are needed but so far it has been determined that gut bacteria tend to be inherited or transmitted, thus passed down through generations. Our microbiome is not static. It is dynamic and can change throughout our lives through various internal and external factors which we will explore in more depth.
How Your Microbiome Affects Your Physical And Mental Health
Gut health has never been worse in developed nations and connections are starting to be made between poor gut health and the development of a plethora of diseases. The Director of NYU Human Microbiome Program, Dr. Martin J. Blaser said, “it’s reasonable to propose that the composition of the microbiome and its activities are involved in most, if not all, of the biological processes that constitute human health and disease”.
It is not an overstatement to say that our gut microbiome affects our entire body from our immune system to our brain and an unhealthy balance of microorganisms in the microbiome has been demonstrated to lends itself to a plethora of diseases both physical and mental from Ulcerative colitis to anxiety and depression.
The gut microbiome is considered an organ and is vital in maintaining a healthy immune system. Our gut communicates with our immune cells and affects how our body responds to infection. The microbiome can modulate our immune response playing a key role in allergic responses and can also teach our T-cells to distinguish between our own cells and foreign cells.
It will not be surprising that the microorganisms in our gut aid in proper digestion of food and one of the ways that it does so is by producing enzymes to help us break down foods. What may not be so well known is its role in the production of certain vitamins and short chain fatty acids that are essential to good health.
The gut is connected to the brain via the vagus nerve, gut-brain axis, and the enteric nervous system. The microbiome influences aspects of the central nervous system including altering neurotransmitter levels like dopamine and serotonin, development of the blood brain barrier, and neurogenesis-the formation of new brain cells.
Because of this, disruptions in gut health can lead to the development of mental health problems and neurological disease. The bacteria that live in our gut have been shown to play a critical role in gut-brain communication and studies continue to demonstrate significant differences in the composition of gut bacteria in those suffering from mental disorders from autism to schizophrenia.
The exciting part of this discovery is that it opens up new avenues to treat these patients that involve dietary changes and supplements such as vitamins and probiotics.
Our gut microbes can produce neurotransmitters such as GABA, dopamine, and serotonin. 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut.
When we think about this, it makes sense why we get “butterflies” in our stomachs when we are in love (serotonin), when we are excited (adrenaline), or when we get 100 likes on our new profile picture on Meta (dopamine).
Factors That Influence Your Microbiome
Throughout our lifetime many factors can affect the diversity and composition of our microbiome. Simply put, the more diverse the microbiome is, the healthier we are.
One of the predominant factors that alters the gut bacteria is stress, particularly chronic stress. Stress alters our microbiome through many mechanisms including the seeking of highly palatable foods which tend to damage our gut, activation of stress hormones, and the chronic inflammation that results. This helps explain why stress can leave us with gut symptoms like bouts of diarrhea, heartburn, or nausea.
Another factor is our environment. Studies have so far discovered that inhaling air pollution alters the composition of our microbiome and decreases diversity. Studies have also shown that people who have a garden have microbiomes with a higher diversity of microorganisms.
Medications, both over the counter and prescribed can have a profound effect on our microbiome. What is interesting is that our microbiome can in turn have an effect on the medications, influencing our response to them.
Most of us are aware of the problems that antibiotic use poses to our gut health. The practice of over prescribing antibiotics coupled with the heavy use of them in meat and dairy production have led to not only antibiotic resistant infections, but to overall degradation of gut health. Probiotics are widely available and consumed by the general public in high numbers in an attempt to ameliorate this.
Another common medication that can damage our microbiome is proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) such as omeprazole that are commonly used to treat reflux disease, also known as heartburn. These medications can increase our risk of gut infections, decrease assimilation and absorption of certain vitamins and minerals leading to deficiencies, and decrease the diversity of microorganisms in our gut.
Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, Naproxen can cause overgrowth of dangerous pathogenic bacteria such as c-difficile. These drugs also lower the gut’s mucosal defense which makes it susceptible to damage and thus disease.
The factor that most strongly affects our microbiome is our lifestyles. Diet is the most powerful influencer of gut microbiome.
Processed foods damage the intestinal lining leading to leaky gut and inflammation that gives rise to a plethora of disorders such as diabetes and heart disease. Fiber foods on the other hand are key nutrients to ensure health and diversity in the gut.
Sleep cycles are dependent on melatonin which is produced from the neurotransmitter serotonin which we now know is gut dependent, therefore low levels of serotonin can change sleep patterns.
Conversely, studies have demonstrated that sleep deprivation can lead to changes in the composition of our microbiome.
Physical activity and the gut microbiota have been shown to be connected in recent studies. Moderate exercise can reduce inflammation and intestinal permeability which promotes gut health. Interestingly studies are showing that in elite athletes who exercise intensely, their microbiota may be influencing their performance.
As mentioned earlier, chronic stress has far and wide implications to our gut health. Meditation and mindfulness practices improve the gut-brain axis, therefore promoting a healthier microbiome.
Where To Go From Here
Science has only begun to explore and research this amazing and complex organ in the human body. It’s likely that future research will reveal an even more intricate and vital relationship between the microbiome and our overall health. This is a very exciting field of research as it may also open up entirely new realms of potential treatment for many of our chronic illnesses.
The good news is that we don’t have to wait for further research to begin our own journey toward healing our gut. There are so many resources available to provide further education and guidance in interventions designed to improve our microbiome.
At Kare Health and Wellness, we understand the importance of gut health to overall health and have worked with many clients over many years, guiding them along their journey of restoration of this vital organ and reclamation of their health.
If you’re ready to harness the power of your body and discover ways to strengthen your microbiome, contact our office to begin your journey. Our Functional Medicine approach paired with our understanding of lifestyle factors will help you to find answers and restore balance to your health.