The word microbiome has gotten a lot of press in recent years. Your different body parts (the ones that are “open” to the external world) all have their own unique microbiome – collections of organisms that live in your mouth, nose, lungs, skin, vagina, and bladder. Altogether, you are host to 4-6 pounds of microbes!
But it’s your digestive tract the harbors most of your microbes. It’s time to get over being grossed out about this – we live in a world with microscopic critters everywhere, and we need them. We’ve evolved symbiotically with microbes. We provide a nice home for them, and they do a zillion amazing things for us. At least, that’s the ideal scenario . . .
When your gut microbes work FOR you
We are only just beginning to understand the vast benefits of having a diverse robust gut microbiota. We learn more about it every single day. These are the key things that we absolutely know your beneficial gut microbes do for you:
- Regulate your metabolism and keep you lean.
- Communicate with your brain and nervous system to keep you sane.
- Process your food and make all kinds of vitamins and nutrients for your benefit.
- Regulate and metabolize your hormones.
- Build a healthy mucosal barrier lining all the way through your GI tract, which prevents food intolerances and “leaky gut.”
- Prevent undesirable species from taking over and help other beneficial species grow.
- Keep your immune system strong and stable.
When your gut microbes work AGAINST you
This is what we called dybiosis, which means a disruption in your gastrointestinal microbiome that leads to poor health. There are two primary forms of dysbiosis: inflammatory and insufficiency. You can also have a combination of both types.
This is when there is an overgrowth of microbial species that cause inflammation. We’ve identified many species that do this. These overgrowths can be in your stomach, small intestine or large intestine (colon).
Inflammatory dysbiosis is very common and can:
- Trigger autoimmunity.
- Actually lower your beneficial “good guy” bacteria.
- Damage your gut lining, which causes leaky gut and food intolerances.
- Produce toxins that can cause widespread inflammation and pain throughout your body.
- Cause gut problems like irritable bowel, colitis, Crohn’s disease, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and gas.
This is when you don’t have enough beneficial species in the two major bacteria phyla that should make up 90% of your gut microbes (called bacteroides and firmicutes).
Insufficient numbers of good bacteroides and firmicutes will:
- Compromise the integrity of your mucosal gut lining. Damage to this barrier can be devastating. It leads to leaky gut, autoimmunity, cognitive decline, arthritis, fibromyalgia, colon cancer, and much more.
- Put you at risk for gut infections (inflammatory dysbiosis).
- Compromise your immune system – The majority of your immune system’s work (about 70%) is in your GI tract, and beneficial bacteria are key to this system’s work.
So let’s talk about the three reasons why we have so much dysbiosis in well-nourished countries these days . . .
1. Sadly, we’ve lost our microbial diversity
First, a robust and diverse microbiome, full of “keystone” species, prevents dysbiosis. Guess how we in the United States rate in terms of microbial diversity? We have the lowest (meaning the worst) microbial diversity on the planet! We have lost our diversity.
What happened to it? Think antibiotics, medications, chemicals, and hygiene:
- Antibiotics that indiscriminately wipe out our keystone beneficial bacteria.
- Our widespread use of chemicals like glyphosate (aka Roundup) that kills indiscriminately.
- Our obsession with antibacterial everything (hand sanitizers, soaps, etc), and with uber-cleanliness in general. More bacterial murder.
- We use all kinds of chemicals to “sanitize” our environment, and again these chemicals wipe out good microbes everywhere, while antibiotic resistant superbugs flourish.
- We take all kinds of medications that change our microbiota for the worse. Besides antibiotics, all pain meds and anti-inflammatories, all acid blockers, and birth control pills are examples of commonly used medications that wreak havoc on your microbiome and the health of your gut lining.
2. We don’t know how to get our diversity back!
Taking random over the counter probiotics won’t restore a diverse microbiome. Most of the keystone species don’t come in pill form. The keystone species need to be fed – by a widely diverse diet of polyphenols and fiber from colorful plants.
Most Americans are not doing this. We tend to favor foods that won’t feed good microbes (like refined carbs and sugar) and we eat the same small number of foods, over and over. You’ll never get diversity this way! How many different types of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and beans, and whole grains do you eat? These are the foods that grow good bacteria, and the more diverse your diet, the more diverse your microbiome will be.
3. We have crappy digestion and do the wrong things about it
Dysbiosis can result from faulty digestion, in any part of your GI system:
Most of you don’t chew enough. Seriously. Do you eat while mutli-tasking, swallowing large chunks of food before it’s nicely mixed with your saliva into a more liquid form? If so, that food is going to sit and ferment in your gut, and overfeed pathogenic bacteria. It also puts more work on your . . .
It has to work really hard to break down food that isn’t chewed well. It has to kick into gear and make acid and pepsin to break down protein and kill harmful bacteria. Without this, food sits and ferments in your stomach, and bubbles up to create reflux – that sour taste, heartburn, or even wheezing. Then you take acid blockers which are meant to be used only for two weeks tops. The suppression of acid makes your food ferment longer, and changes the pH of your stomach contents. This means you won’t absorb many minerals and vitamins that need an acidic pH, and malnutrition starts. Yes, malnutrition in well-fed countries. The food “bolus” continues down at the wrong pH into your small intestine where it meets your . . .
These guys get secreted into your small intestine only if the pH is right. If food is already at the wrong pH from low stomach acid or acid suppression, your pancreas misses the signal. The other organs that miss the signal are your . . .
Liver and gallbladder:
They need to make and secrete bile to break down the fat you eat, and carry out toxins with your poop. Faulty liver function is often because it’s overburdened (or fatty) from excess weight, environmental toxins, inflammation, and gut infections. Gallbladders get sluggish and form thick bile that can’t move . . .
How fast or slow are your intestines moving? Slow motility means bacteria can ferment and overgrow. Fast motility means bacteria don’t get a chance to eat.
Who should find out if they have dysbiosis?
Anyone with obvious digestive symptoms should investigate. In addition, anyone with cognitive issues, autoimmunity of any type, skin breakouts or rosacea, pain syndromes, allergies and histamine reactions, migraines, hormone imbalance, arthritis, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression, use of medications that cause dysbiosis, excess abdominal weight, insulin resistance and diabetes.
Basically, everyone! Or just about.
How to test for dysbiosis and how to fix it?
From my Functional Medicine lens, the best test to date is the GI Map by Diagnostic Solutions Lab. It uses genetic sequencing from one very small stool sample that you can easily collect at home. This cutting-edge test will give you FAR more information than you will get with any conventional stool test. It will tell you what microbes are growing as well as which ones are not. It’s excellent for detecting all bacteria (good, inflammatory or pathogenic, and benign), and even parasites such as amoeba or worms. (Yes, parasites are more common than you realize).
It also tells you if your:
- Gut is inflamed, and if so, to what degree.
- Bile system is effectively breaking down fat.
- Gut immune system is sufficient, overworking, or weak.
- Pancreas is making sufficient enzymes.
How to get the GI Map?
Most of us Functional Medicine providers use this test. With a PPO insurance plan, it’s a steal at $179. Otherwise it is $297 which is also well worth it for the information. When you get results, you need someone who really understands this test to interpret it.
You can get a customized plan to balance your microbes (knock inflammatory microbes down as well as growing the good guys that need a boost). If you have poor enzyme production, insufficient bile, inflammation, or poor gut immunity – all of these can be fixed with the right treatment plan.
I specialize in doing this without any pharmaceuticals that have an unknown effect on your precious microbiome. After balancing microbes, your plan continues to shore up your gut lining, reduce inflammation, fix faulty digestion issues, and above all restore diversity.
There’s no one-size-fits-all protocol, because your body and your microbiome are as diverse as you are.
Then, be amazed as autoimmunity quells, skin clears up, weight comes off, allergies disappear, food is less restricted, pain lessons, brain gets more clear, moods are more even-keel, digestion works like a well-oiled machine, and much much more!