There have been exciting discoveries about the microbiome that lead to a radical change in how we view the human body. “Microbiome” is a new name for something long known about, the teeming colonies of bacteria and fungi that exist all around the body. We need these micro-organisms in order to digest food, but the existence of so-called “intestinal flora” isn’t news either. So why did the microbiome become exciting?
The biggest reason can be summarized as “The microbiome is us.” Instead of being invaders or microscopic hitchhikers, the microbiome represents the continuity of life itself. Microbial DNA is woven into human DNA, which immediately tells us that far from being enemy germs, thousands of species of bacteria, viruses, and fungi brought our ancestors the news of the world as it applies to the evolution of life. A world cloud of DNA moves in, around, and through every living thing.
In natural history museums our hominid ancestors look small and primitive, but there is an invisible link that binds us to them, the microbiome. There are other microbiome locations in the mouth, on the skin, and in the armpits and groin, but let’s limit ourselves to the gut microbiome, since it is incredibly complex, with an estimated 2,000 species of microbial life, and it is life-giving.
Trying to grasp what is going on in the process of digestion is like trying to give a cloud sharp edges, because everyone’s microbiome is constantly shifting. From day to day the exact population is different. This also makes it very difficult to define the ideal microbiome. But what our ancestors ate defines what you eat today. “You are what you ate” tells the story of your life today, too, because the partnership, or symbiosis, between microbes and the rest of the body begins at birth.
From that moment onward, the gut microbiome was deeply involved in the following issues: the strength of your immune system, your allergies or lack of them, the status of inflammation in your body (inflammation is now suspected as the chief culprit, along with stress, in most if not all chronic disorders), your appetite and digestion, and even your emotions, since there’s a direct pathway in the nervous system between the brain, the digestive tract, and the main nerves that bring information about breathing, heart rate, and your perception of the outside world.
Right now there are more clues perhaps than a solid understanding of the microbiome. The emerging popularity of prebiotics and probiotics, for example, seems like a good thing but is based on wobbly science. Swallowing millions of microbes in a pill barely encroaches on the trillions that reside in your digestive tract. Certain findings are very tantalizing, however.
Suggested action: Promote what everyone’s microbiome prefers, a whole-foods diet, a wide range of fiber (the food of the microbiome) from plants, grains, and nuts, and an anti-inflammatory diet in general.
Suggested action: Don’tzero down to just a few favorite goods. Make your diet as diverse as possible.
Suggested action: Become more open-minded and positive about microbes; avoid the trap of germaphobia. There is enormous promise in bacteria as sources of new drugs, a decrease in chronic disorders, and longer, healthier lifespans. At the very least, be humble in the face of these, our most powerful evolutionary allies. The collective gene pool of life on Earth is almost entirely that of the microbiota.
Suggested action: Focus on the microbiome as the source, and remedy, of obesity. This implies once again that an organic whole-foods diet is key to wellness. Obesity is just one aspect; there are implications for everything from immunity to psychological symptoms.
Suggested action: The more we know about the microbiome, the more critical the need for stress reduction. This is the message that should cut through all the noise about medical advice, drugs, and diet. Get a good night’s sleep, take active measures to reduce the daily stress you experience, particularly the repeated small stresses we tend to overlook, and go back to Nature in what you eat.
The suggested actions we’ve given are neither new nor radical. Most sound like proper advice heard over and over again. But the microbiome reinforces two overriding facts. The mind and body are a whole, a bodymind, and this bodymind is dominated, genetically speaking, by the bacteria that inhabit us. From these two facts alone an entirely new and better view of human well-being is already developing.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission.
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