According to Dr. Mark Hyman, director of Cleveland Clinic for Functional Medicine, we are in the era of the microbiome though the science is still in its infancy. He is one of the many doctors featured on The Human Longevity Project who believe that if we want to preserve our long-term health, the most important thing we need to learn to do is protect our microbiome.
What is the Microbiome?
The microbiome is the total populations of microbiota that exist in a human body, a population so large microbes outnumber human cells ten to one. They live all over the body, gathering in every organ from the eyes, brain and liver to the kidneys, mouth and skin but the largest population, about 80 per cent, about 30 trillion microbes live in the gut, particularly in the large intestine. The microbiome was not generally recognized until the 1990s, which is why doctors are only beginning to understand its implications for health now.
As microbiologist Kiran Krishnan explains, there is 150 times more bacterial DNA in our bodies than human DNA, which means 99 per cent of things we do on a daily basis are controlled by the microbiome. What doctors are beginning to understand is that it’s impossible to have good health without a healthy microbiome because microbes are so integral to our ecology that they influence how we think, feel, and function on every level.
They are also beneficial colonisers that protect against autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and a host of gastro conditions. The microbiome is introduced to the human body during birth as the baby passes through the mother’s vaginal canal, and the diversity of flora is established in the first few years of life, setting up the health of the individual for the rest of life.
Dr. Hyman explains that the populations of microbiota in the body are dynamic meaning the slightest change in environment sparks a chain reaction that can have positive or negative outcomes for health. Everything in your environment affects the balance in your microbiome, what you eat, how you sleep, the stress you’re under, what cleaning products and cosmetics you use, whether or not you like your partner, home and/or job; if it affects you, it affects your microbiome, and the microbioata respond accordingly.
The Microbiome and Gut Health
Gut bacteria, or the microbiota that live in the large intestine, is the body’s largest immune system because it teaches the body what’s okay, what’s not, and what kind of response is needed. As Dr. Grace Liu, founder of the Gut Institute, explains, the gut microbiota “hover above the sterile zone of mucus to help the absorption of food,” and it’s during this absorption process that the microbiota decide what’s friend or foe. For this reason she calls them, “our superheroes.”
Krishnan, the microbiologist, points out that for a long time researchers couldn’t figure out how this process worked, or what mechanism microbes used to identify good from bad pathogens, and when to release an immune response. That was until toll-like receptors were discovered, and shown to maintain homeostasis in the gut, as well as determining the quality of intestinal immunity.
When the microbiota in the gut are not happy, they will damage the lining of the intestinal membrane allowing unwanted elements to leak into the blood stream, a condition known as leaky gut. Once that happens, it activates the immune system and its inflammatory response, which if left untended can create a chronic inflammatory state that affects everything.
As well as the digestive process, and immune system, the gut microbiota also affect the brain. Peptides, neurotransmitters and other molecules produced in the stomach directly impact brain function and it works both ways, as the brain can also send messages to the gut and impact its functions.
According to functional medicine practitioner Dr. Tom O’Bryan, “For every message going from the brain to the gut, there are nine going back to the brain from the gut,” and those messages are coming from the microbiota.
On top, the gut is the only organ that can function independent of the brain because it has its own ecology and metabolic system. Researchers now understand that the bacteria in the gut have more influence on the brain that any other organ because of the neurotransmitters, peptides and hormones they have the capacity to create. For example, the brain can signal to the stomach that more dopamine or testosterone is required, and the microbes in the gut can produce it.
O’Bryan explains that’s why there are such strong links between gut problems and mood disorders like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar and even Parkinson’s; all these conditions begin in the gut because the gut microbiota have much more influence on the body’s messaging system than the body’s own genome.
The Microbiome Protects You From Disease
Lorenzo Drago PhD is professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Milan where his team discovered the deep communication system between microbiota and human cells by studying the skin where they found microbes in all layers of the skin including the dermis, glands and immune cells. They identified them as part of the “core microbiota” that control the body’s defense mechanisms.
What that means is that microbes form a barrier between the environment and the body and if the microbes aren’t happy, the body is at risk to infection at cellular level. In effect, the communication between the microbiota and human cells is the basis for human health. It’s now believed that imbalances in these mechanisms first present as skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
Over the last century, modern medicine has introduced a bunch of antibiotics that not only kill bad pathogens but good ones, too. In fact, the more industrialised, modified, sanitised, sterilised, and commodified the world becomes the more epidemics of chronic disease grow. On top, microbes are extremely adaptable.
The more antibiotics and chemicals are introduced, the more microbes can mutate to evolve past them, and create superbugs. In every household, there are a diverse array of cosmetics, toiletries and cleaning agents full of chemicals that affect the ecology of the microbiome. Even showering can cause imbalances in microbiota because some people might be allergic to the chlorine in the water.
We need a healthy balance of bacteria on the skin because without them it opens the door to infection, which can turn into acne, psoriasis, eczema or dry skin. More important, the health of the microbes in the skin play a key role in the communication pathways between the immune cells in other organs, which means that upsets in the skin travel to other organs and can cause infections there, too.
Balancing The Microbiome and Gut Health
Dr. Patrick Gentempo, a health technology innovator, explains that there is less than 2 per cent of microbes we know about that are harmful to humans, which means 98 per cent of them are beneficial. Instead of trying to kill of the bad ones, which results in even stronger bugs, it would seem the best way to control the 2 per cent is to leave the job up to the 98 per cent who have being doing it for a millennia way more effectively that modern medicine.
Brand new research proves the existence of ancient codes in microbe DNA. Dr. Michael Ash, researcher and clinical educator, explains how the mitochondria’s ability to extract nutrients from food is in fact a complex communication system that was set up millions of years ago as part of our human evolutionary process.
When we eat food, the bacteria present in the soil where that food was grown is communicating with the bacteria in our gut. That process ensures the body’s mitochondria are replicable, repairable and functional, and can survive. This dynamic relationship is a very new area of research but what researchers know is that the quality of dialogue is determined by the source of nutrients i.e. the quality of the food.
Our bodies need locally produced, whole foods to receive the right messages to pass onto our cells so that microbial genes can respond in healthy and balanced ways. These different microbial ecologies are in constant communication with each other and the environment in ways we don’t yet understand. As Dr. Mark Hyman says, food isn’t just nutrition, “it’s information.”
Basically, what the doctors in The Human Longevity Project are saying is that human beings are a walking talking ecology that’s designed to be in a continuous dialogue with its environmental ecologies and that our job as the host body is create the right conditions for a happy conversation. According to them, the answer lies in finding the same harmony between our external and internal ecologies that our ancestors had. What they’re saying is that in order for us to heal, we need to go back to our roots.
Check out The Human Longevity Project series here.