Did you know that there are more “bugs” in and on you than there are cells of you? For every gene in your own genome, there are about 100 bacterial genes. Kind of makes you wonder who’s in charge! More and more research is showing that the microbes who live with us vastly impact our health, everything from our levels of inflammation to our brain function to our risk for diabetes.
So where do they live and who are they? Different bacteria live on different body parts; some areas are fairly stable and others exhibit a vast fluctuation in bacteria based on changes in your lifestyle. Though some research shows that varieties of bacteria vary with where you live, other studies show that the variance of over-all types of bacteria remain remarkably stable in general geographic areas (ie USA vs countries in Africa). Studies are still going on to see how much your microbiome changes with different diets, sleep patterns, antibiotic use, etc. Though this research is still in its infancy, there are some amazing findings so far.
It starts with our birth: we inherit our initial microbiome from our moms. If we’re born vaginally, we leave the mostly bacteria-free uterus and pick up bacteria from mom on the way out. These bacteria determine which types of colonies will settle in us overall. If we’re born by C section, then we leave mom into a sterile surgical field, skipping all those vaginal bacteria. This means that we’re primarily colonized by skin bacteria as our loved ones hold us and care for us. Not the end of the world, as our systems can make adjustments, but it’s not how it’s designed. If you happen to be a preemie, and live in an ICU for a few weeks, imagine how different your colonies will look like! There is a movement afoot to gather some vaginal secretions from women who have C sections and use it to swab their newborns, mimicking what nature intended.
Now let’s look at how things change in newborns as we change what we eat. Initially, our microbiomes primarily trigger genes to break down the nutrients in breast milk. Then, the microbiome starts triggering genes that help break down carbohydrates in plants; as time marches on and our diet changes, then the microbe starts triggering different genes to match. It appears that what we eat will determine the microbiome components we have. The simple most important thing to know is that eating processed foods leads to a much smaller diversity of bugs….they simply don’t have to work as hard to help us gather nutrients from our food (maybe cause there aren’t many nutrients left?). Unfortunately, this has a negative impact on our immune systems, among other things.
As I question who’s really in charge here, imagine this: there are species of bacteria who send out signals to make us eat more. It appears that they are manipulating us to get the nutrients that they want. So, literally, there are bugs that make us fat. (No, you can’t blame them for everything, but it can tell you that you need to change your diet in order to change your bugs!)
Next, there are bacteria that affect our brain; animal studies have shown that changing gut flora can change behaviors associated with depression, anxiety and what is essentially “mouse ADD”. Normalizing their gut flora normalized the mouse’s behavior. So, imagine what we’ve just seen: more highly processed foods lead to abnormal bacteria, and these lead to crazy behavior. Can it be that what we’re feeding our children explains the huge amount of ADD being diagnosed these days?
Lots of information here, but what to do about it? First of all, change your diet. More whole foods, less processed stuff. Not a new concept, just a new reason! Second, don’t just take a probiotic pill—studies show that they don’t do as good a job of improving your microbiome as eating fermented foods and drinking fermented drinks. It doesn’t take a lot; even 2-3 tbl of real sauerkraut or kimchi, or 8 oz of kombucha or kefir will do the trick. Yogurt helps some, but by it’s nature, there are fewer bacteria found here compared to other foods. You can save money and make your own! Resources: “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz; kombucha starter and raw milk from Your Family Farmer; kefir and kombucha starter from Kefirlady.com
One last thing: do you want to know more about your own microbiome? You can find out by submitting samples for a small fee. Check out UBiome, a company busy trying to sequence the dna of as many samples as they can get their hands on. You’ll find out what’s living inside of you; not entirely sure what that means yet, but if you find out you don’t have much diversity, then it might encourage you to make some changes. And in the meantime, you’re contributing to science. (FYI: my sweet husband actually got me a kit for my birthday. Guess he knows that my intellectual curiosity often outstrips my need for flowers or another nice dinner out! I can’t wait to get my results back!).