Wow! Research concerning how we should take care of our health and well-being has really evolved. The advice that health professionals, including me, were giving out a decade or two ago was faulty. Research is ever evolving! Discoveries of the last few years really sheds light on what is good for us and what is not.
I honestly think that given some recent research and discoveries we have every reason to be optimistic about the future of health care. We, as individuals, can really take care of ourselves to prevent and even reverse disease. What I am talking about is related to what is known as our microbiome or gut bacteria. It really controls much of what goes on in our bodies. And now that we are learning about what enables it to function better, we can start to gear our eating, exercise and lifestyle toward that goal.
What is the Microbiome?
As Harvard Health describes it, picture a bustling city on a weekday morning, the sidewalks flooded with people rushing to get to their destinations. Now imagine this at a microscopic level and you have an idea of what the microbiome looks like inside our bodies, consisting of trillions of microorganisms (also called microbiota or microbes) of thousands of different species. These include not only bacteria but fungi, parasites, and viruses. In a healthy person, these “bugs” coexist peacefully, with the largest numbers found in the small and large intestines but also throughout the body. The microbiome is even labeled a supporting organ because it plays so many key roles in promoting the smooth daily operations of the human body.
The microbiome has such influence on our health—physical and mental—that it is now being referred to as the second brain. The microbiome extends from deep within our bodies—even inside individual cells—to the skin and to all surfaces exposed to the external environment. It interacts with the body’s systems, helping with digestion, immune response and a vast array of bodily functions.
Our microbiomes vary widely depending on stage of life (from infancy to advanced age), birth route (normal or by cesarean section), and whether we were fed with mother’s milk or formula-fed. Travel, diet, illness, medication, environmental exposure, climate, water and many other variables also shape the human microbiome. Indeed, each human’s microbiome is thought to be as unique as our fingerprint. The gut microbiome of modern humans hosts more than 100 trillion microorganisms, representing tens of thousands, if not millions, of species. Yes, that number is correct!
Research has now documented the microbiome’s profound influence on our health and well-being. Microbiome fundamentals relate to genes, cells, various bodily systems and, especially, the gut and digestive tract.
Take care of it!
If you do the things you need to in order to keep your gut bacteria in good working order, the positive health outcomes can be phenomenal. Having a microbiome in good working order will help you prevent many diseases. Not only does it play a role in preventing diabetes, cancers and heart disease, but also ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
What harms the microbiome the most?
What we eat or drink:
- Lack of prebiotics in the diet. In order to get enough of the fiber that comes with consumption of prebiotics, eat more lentils, chickpeas, beans, oats, bananas, garlic, onions and nuts.
- Not eating a diverse range of foods. A lack of diversity within the gut bacteria limits recovery from harmful influences, such as infection or antibiotics. A diet consisting of a wide variety of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can lead to a more diverse gut flora. In fact, putting more variety in your diet can alter your gut flora profile after only a few days.
- Drinking alcohol. In terms of gut health, chronic alcohol consumption can cause serious problems. A condition called dysbiosis can occur. Dysbiosis is a condition in the gastrointestinal tract that can cause periodontal disease, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, obesity, cancer, bacterial vaginosis, and colitis.
How we live:
- Antibiotic use. One of their drawbacks is that they affect both good and bad bacteria. In fact, even a single antibiotic treatment can lead to harmful changes in the composition and diversity of the gut flora. Antibiotics usually cause a short-term decline in beneficial bacteria. However, antibiotics can also lead to long-term alterations. After completing a dose of antibiotics, most bacteria return after 1–4 weeks, but their numbers often don’t return to previous levels. Only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary! (In part 2 we will also look at the microbiomes reaction to other drugs.)
- Lack of exercise and regular physical activity. Recent studies suggest that physical activity may also alter the gut bacteria, improving gut health. Active people have a higher abundance of health-promoting bacteria, suggesting that regular physical activity, even at low-to-moderate intensities, can be beneficial.
- Cigarette smoking. Smoking causes harm to nearly every organ in the body and raises the risk of heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. Cigarette smoking is also one of the most important environmental risk factors for inflammatory bowel disease, a disease characterized by ongoing inflammation of the digestive tract. Furthermore, smokers are twice as likely to have Crohn’s disease, a common type of inflammatory bowel disease, compared to non-smokers.
How and when we rest:
- Lack of sleep. Sleep is so important that your body has its own time-keeping clock, known as your circadian rhythm. It’s a 24-hour internal clock that affects your brain, body and hormones. It can keep you alert and awake, but it can also tell your body when it’s time to sleep. It appears that the gut also follows a daily circadian-like rhythm. Disrupting your body clock through a lack of sleep, shift work and eating late at night may have harmful effects on your gut bacteria. A 2016 study compared the effects of two nights of sleep deprivation (about 4 hours per night) versus two nights of normal sleep duration (8.5 hours). Two days of sleep deprivation caused subtle changes to the gut flora and increased the abundance of bacteria associated with weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes and fat metabolism.
- Too much stress. High stress levels can also have harmful effects on the body. In the gut, stress can increase sensitivity, reduce blood flow and alter the gut bacteria. This is still a very new area of research, but preliminary studies are showing a negative effect on gut bacteria function when under stress.
We have taken a good look at what to avoid. In part 2 of this article we will examine how different drugs can negatively affect us, how the gut bacteria see to play a key role in weight loss, and what positive steps we can take to make sure we have microbiome health which in turn will bring health to all systems of our bodies—including our brains. That will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”