Do you remember the Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who? Well, as the story goes, Horton the elephant finds a microscopic world in a dust speck that he has placed on a clover flower. The mayor asks Horton to protect his town of Whoville, which Horton gladly agrees to do, proclaiming throughout the story, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” However, he can’t convince anyone that the tiny world exists, and the evil forces that be want to destroy the speck and brand Horton as insane. Horton prevails in the end, though, when he convinces the citizens of the little town to shout as loudly as they can, “We are here! We are here! We are here!” The disbelievers do an about face, and come to recognize the tiny world, thereby validating Horton’s discovery.
I am reminded of this story when I think of the discovery of the human microbiome. Do you know what that is? Well, there is a world of tiny creatures (bacteria, fungi, viruses), that live on us, as well as inside us. As a matter of fact, the average person houses somewhere between 2 and 6 pounds of bacteria in his or her intestinal tract. That’s right. You actually have more bacterial cells in your gut than the total amount of human cells in your body. You are comprised of about 10 trillion human cells, but contain up to 100 trillion bacterial cells, which makes you about 90% bacteria! What’s even more astounding is that the genetic material inside us is 99.9% bacterial. So, I want to know, who’s really running the show?
You’re probably familiar with bad bacterial strains such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), which can cause food poisoning, Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes strep throat, and Clostridium difficile (C. diff), which can cause an infection due to antibiotic resistance. But the bad bacteria make up only about 10% of our tiny inhabitants, and the good guys usually keep the bad guys in check. The good bacteria only comprise about 10% of the total as well, but they perform incredibly vital functions such as synthesizing vitamins, training our immune system to ward off pathogens, and breaking down undigestible carbohydrates into products that our body can use. The other 80%, or the bulk of our microbiome, consists of commensal bacteria, which, as far as we know, neither harm nor help our bodies (this is a hot topic in science today, and we are just beginning to uncover the microscopic world within us).
Just like in the biomes of the natural world, we need diversity among the critters within us. The bad bacteria aren’t always bad, unless they get out of control. By constantly targeting them with strong pharmaceutical antibiotics, and eating an unhealthy Standard American Diet (SAD), we can upset the delicate balance of our inner ecosystem.
Simple Ways to Keep Your Inner Ecosystem Healthy
Here’s a quick list of ways you can start today to promote the good bacteria. By keeping the bad guys at bay, you will keep your immune system strong:
- Reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates and refined sugars (the bad guys love these). Try to incorporate whole foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, and healthy meats. A diverse selection will foster diversity in your microbiome.
- Eat a fiber-rich diet (the good guys use fiber as their food). Shoot for about 35 grams per day. Good sources of fiber are lentils, raspberries, pears, artichokes, nuts, and sweet potatoes.
- Add probiotic-rich fermented foods into your diet, like kefir, good quality yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented vegetables (make sure they’re in the refrigerated section and have no vinegar). Start slowly and add just a spoonful a day so your gut adjusts.
- Eat prebiotic-rich foods which feed your good bacteria. Some examples are garlic, onions, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, leeks, kiwis and chicory root.
- It's important to feed your microbiome with whole foods first, but many people take a probiotic supplement for added support. Look for formulas with a wide variety of bacterial strains. Start slowly with one capsule, and work your way up, so your digestive system gets acclimated.
- Try to limit the use of antibiotics unless your doctor feels they are really necessary. Remember, antibiotics target bacteria. Colds and flus are caused by viruses, which are not affected by antibiotics.
So, like Horton, we need to recognize that there is a wonderful and necessary world within us, trying to communicate in their own way, saying, "We are here! We are here!" We must protect our microbiome along with its diversity. If the bad guys get out of control, yes, we may need to take stronger measures to control them. But we should also be feeding and supporting the good guys, who will naturally crowd out the unwanted inhabitants.
More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Well, there is much merit to this statement, as modern science is proving. Stay tuned to future blog articles where I continue to discuss our microbiome in relation to disease and health.