To fully embrace human health and longevity, one must also embrace the benefits of bacteria.
Consider this: there are more alien cells in your body than human cells. No, this does not mean that you are an extraterrestrial, but it does mean that, in the human body, bacterial cells, primarily located in the gut, overwhelmingly outnumber human cells by a factor of about 10. In fact, if you were to consider all of the DNA in your body, over 99% of it is bacterial. These simple facts are becoming increasingly recognized in the medical community because one must consider the variety and health of an individual’s bacterial microbial population in the intestines (the microbiome) in order to develop a proper understanding of human health. In contrast, in order to study human diseases and the increasing prevalence of certain ailments in developed countries, one must consider dysfunctions of the microbiome.
The director of the Human Microbiome Project, Dr. Martin J. Blaser, has written a very informative book called Missing Microbes. There, he makes the connection between increased antibiotic use in contemporary society and decreased variety within our microbiome and, therefore, increased risk to certain diseases and conditions. Essentially, antibiotics do kill bad bacteria (like in the case of strep throat) but also kill the good along with the bad, which may serve a short-term interest but also poses a threat to our long-term health. Dr. Blaser links, for example, rises in diabetes, asthma, and some forms of cancer to changes in our bacterial ecosystem—an ecosystem that, for millennia, has existed in a healthy equilibrium with our bodies but has been drastically altered by modern antibiotics. Such facts draw alarm when one considers that the typical American child receives just under three courses of antibiotics before the age of two, and the inappropriate use of antibiotics for nonbacterial illnesses continues to be a problem. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that “as many as 10 million antibiotic prescriptions are written each year for infections they are unlikely to help.”
Furthermore, the younger the child is when they receive antibiotics, the more deleterious the long-term effects may be. This does not suggest that antibiotics are wholly inappropriate, but it should alert health-care providers who are prescribing such medication or parents and patients who actively seek them for benign, self-limiting illnesses.
So what do the bacteria in our guts actually do? What are the specific benefits of bacteria?
The first point to consider is that, like us, bacteria in the gut are adaptable. The bacterial cells in the lining of the intestine can respond to changes in the environment, just like your body will respond with muscular growth if you start lifting weights. Since the bacteria are simple organisms, they are also able to do things that our human cells can’t, like swap genetic material so a cell with one unique ability can pass it along to its neighbors. Also, generally speaking, bacterial cells have a much shorter life span than human cells, so the turnover rate is much higher. Hence, it is possible to change the composition of one’s microbiome, but it will take time with persistent lifestyle and dietary changes in order to feed the right kind of bacteria from one generation to the next so the desired bacteria can be “selected.” The bacteria also pose a physical and competitive barrier in the lining of the gut. If you have lots of good bacteria comfortably settled into your gut, they will compete for the same space and resources as potential invading bad bacteria. By beefing up the former, you will firmly establish a defense against the latter.
When you think about it, the microbiome (if it had a mind) really wants you to be healthy because when you eat properly, you’re feeding it what it wants—a happy microbiome and a happy person make a causal relationship. Their gifts to you, in return, are the many benefits as described below.
Second, the microbiome can block the harmful effects of phytic acid. Phytic acid (found in grains, seeds, and nuts) can bind to certain nutrients and minerals in your gut and prevent you from absorbing them, leading to deficiencies. However, with the right microbiome composition, bacteria can convert phytic acid into a less dangerous compound and allow your body to absorb what it needs.
Third, gut bacteria make vitamins and nutrients. Essentially, the bacteria take some of the food you’ve eaten and “excrete” nutrients that you can then use. Examples are short-chain fatty acids, vitamin K, and the B vitamins, lending support to the suggestion that an appropriate diet with an appropriate microbiome will tend to eliminate all vitamin deficiencies.
Fourth, you are, truly, what you eat. Are there more neurons in your brain or in your gut? Your gut, and there’s even a very prominent nerve that runs directly from your stomach to your brain. And as a by-product of their digestion, gut bacteria produce dopamine and serotonin, both of which are utilized in mood stabilization and the feeling of happiness. In fact, almost all of the serotonin in our systems is made by the microbiome—this is therein largely responsible for our sense of well-being and optimism, our response to stress, and our sense of focus.
In essence, who we are, how we think, and how we behave are a direct result of what’s in our gut. And not everything that we eat is what our bodies actually absorb; it all depends on what’s inside our intestines that acts as a mediator (both good and bad) between what we ingest and the nutrition that we obtain. Having an unhealthy microbiome can counteract the nutrition we actually receive (at least initially) even if we were to choose all the right foodstuffs.
So what can you do to improve the health and diversity of your microbiome? Here are three simple steps to get you on the right track.
Eat more fermented foods and fibers—and eat a variety of them. The former are probiotics, and the latter are prebiotics. Whatever your favorite food is, that’s the thing that makes you happy and keeps you satisfied. Well, the bacteria in your gut love eating the fiber (something that you can’t digest) from whole plant foods (fruits, grains, seeds, vegetables) that can then be turned into nutrients. “Fermented foods” refers to things that are produced with live bacteria incorporated into them—examples include kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles. Several of the bacteria in these foods have been proven to promote overall health and wellness. Essentially, the bacteria living in these foods enter into a symbiotic relationship with us within our guts, but the body will need a continual supply in order to maintain a healthy relationship. So going out now and eating a tub of yogurt once will offer no long-term benefits, but incorporating fermented foods into your diet will.
Eat more polyphenols. This class of compounds is one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants and serves as prebiotics for the gut bacteria. As a rule of thumb, anything that is dark or purple is rich in polyphenols (blackberries, red wine, grapes, blueberries), but it is also found in green tea and many other fruits and vegetables. In fact, one of the highest concentrations of polyphenols is found in the seeds of grapes, with the skin of the grapes coming in a close second. Basically, the bacteria in our gut release these antioxidants from structural bondage, making them available for us to use.
Work out regularly. In one study, increased physical activity increased the population of good bacteria in the gut, while lack of exercise increased the likelihood of bad bacteria in the gut. In other words, regular exercise has effects inside your body as opposed to just what you see in the mirror, and the internal changes are the ones that are most important.
Always remember that true change begins with gradual, incremental small steps and not dramatic ones. So if you decide to move your microbiome in a more positive direction, set a goal to incorporate all this information over several months as opposed to a few days. Your body will thank you, your microbiome will thank you, and you’ll feel tremendously better.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal