Many health and wellness experts are uncovering the extent to which our microbiome impacts our health. Micro-what, you say? I’m talking about the balance of beneficial versus harmful microbes in our body.
Did you know that 90% of our body’s cells are bacteria, protozoa, yeast, and even viruses? That’s right 90% — according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).1
More than 100 trillion of these organisms live in our body and they make up an estimated 3 pounds of our body weight.2 They live on our skin, in our mouth, throughout our body, and especially in our intestinal tract. Turns out we may be more host than human!
You grossed out? No need to be, because these critters are around to protect us. The types and proportions of our microbes are being studied intently and scientists are realizing more and more how critical the health of our microflora is to every aspect of our wellness — including the health of our brain, heart, skin, mood, weight…and the list goes on and on.
This topic is near and dear to my heart — and let me tell you why. My first son was sixteen months old when I had my second. Life was pretty manageable for the first 10 days of having two kids. For 10 days I thought, ‘I got this!’ I was tired but had the help of family and my newborn was such a great sleeper and an easy kiddo.
Well, he was an “easy” kiddo for about 10 days. For the next 2 years of his life we would struggle with understanding his physical needs and our family would experience many stressful days and perpetual feelings of being out of control.
At around 10 days old, Joey started getting really fussy and was hard to console, he wouldn’t sleep for more than an hour or two at a time and his skin — from head to toe — started breaking out with eczema. As he grew in his first year of life, he continued to struggle with sleep and remained very agitated, sensitive, and began blacking out from extreme screaming spells.
He would continue waking at night regularly with night terror-like behavior and there was no reasoning with or consoling him in these fits. He would scream during baths because the water over his head was so agitating and any light touch from someone would cause him to pull away and be on edge. When I painted the picture of our stressful situation to our multiple pediatricians we were told that he was spirited and that we needed to discipline consistently. I knew the difference between my first and second son was more than parenting issues, and, to be honest, I was nervously awaiting an autism spectrum diagnosis.
When he was close to two, we sought the expertise of a naturopath who immediately started assessing his intestinal microbes for imbalances. Through stool testing we found that he had an overgrowth of yeast and bacteria in his intestinal tract that had been irritating his poor body since birth. You see — I was put on antibiotics for five days surrounding Joey’s birth and those antibiotics impacted the microbial diversity that I passed onto him through the birthing process. The bacteria and antibodies in my breast milk were also altered from the antibiotics and I was even inadvertently giving him a dose of antibiotics when I nursed him while on the meds.
So I didn’t pass him a stellar microbiome and I didn’t know that it would have been wise to help him build one. The naturopath helped us kill the harmful yeast and rebuild Joey’s intestinal flora with herbs and medication, probiotics, and fermented food. We also identified food sensitivities (dairy, corn, wheat, eggs, and almonds) that were created from the imbalance and we removed those foods to help heal his gut and entire body. Within months, Joey was a completely different kid — calm, content, responsive, and a much better sleeper. Our home felt much less stressful and more under control.
As result of my son’s experience, I learned that a balanced microbiota serves several purposes including protection against pathogen invasion, development of the immune system, detoxifying our bodies, keeping weight balanced, protecting us from disease, and optimizing nutrition.3 I was thrilled to learn that we have so many little gut friends advocating for our health. However, I also learned that there can be some bad guys mixed in with this gut flora who are believed to play a role in the development of inflammation, obesity, and many chronic illnesses. My son had an overgrowth of these bad guys, and it was evident that the imbalance of these microbes was causing him physical and emotional anguish. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t learn about this critical piece of our health in nursing school.
Although physically located in greatest density in our gastrointestinal tract, our microbiome may be responsible for controlling the health of our entire body.4 Unfortunately, for many of us, our microbiome is becoming increasingly unbalanced or “dysbiotic,” and this imbalance is being intensely studied for its potential contribution to many chronic diseases. Researchers are finding compelling links between dysbiosis and the following health issues:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Obesity and type 2 diabetes
- Colorectal cancer
- Weak immunity
- “Colic” in infants
- Reoccurring ear infections in children
- Digestive disorders (Irritable Bowel Syndrome, heart burn, chronic diarrhea or constipation)
- Sleep disturbances
- Food sensitivities
- Infertility and preterm birth
- Acne and eczema
- Mood instabilities (depression, anxiety, mood swings)
- Neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Tourette’s, MS)
- Behavioral problems (ADHD/ADD, autism, hyperactivity, inability to control impulses)5
So what can you do? Don’t underestimate the power of your microbial friends and don’t forget to consider a microbial imbalance as a contributor to nagging health issues that you just can’t seem to kick. Here are 8 ways in which you can nourish a strong microbial balance:
- Limit/avoid processed and refined foods and load up on “real” foods and vegetables (especially leafy greens).
- Limit/avoid antibiotic use unless necessary.
- Take probiotic supplements.
- Consume fermented foods.
- Wash hands with ordinary soap and water (avoid antibacterial hand sanitizers and soaps).
- Give birth vaginally and breastfeed when possible.
- Reduce stress.
- Identify food sensitivities and avoid inflammatory foods.
Learn specifics about the above 8 ways to build a healthy intestinal flora in a free digital copy of Chapter 11 (How Our Microbiome Controls Our Health) in my book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World. Send me a message requesting a free copy of Chapter 11 or to ask any questions stirred by the article.
Since our gut microbes are the frontline of our immune system and responsible for keeping all of our systems in check, it is vitally important to nurture them. If we take good care of our one hundred trillion little companions, they will return the favor!
- Peter Turnbaugh, et al., “The Human Microbiome Project: Exploring the Microbial Part of Ourselves in a Changing World,” Nature 449 (2007): 804-10.
- Donna Gates, “Body Ecology with Donna Gates,” lecture, Institute for Integrative Nutrition, NewYork, 2 Feb 2015.
- Satya Prakash,Laetitia Rodes, and Catherine Tomaro-Duchesneau, “Gut Microbiota: Next Frontier in Understanding Human Health and Development of Biotherapeutics,” Biologics 5 (2011): 71-86.