Getting to Know the Microbiome

By Dr. Alan Shair

Alongside the major headlines in the past year, one topic getting a lot of media attention is the Microbiome, a collection of bacteria, yeast and viruses that normally live in and on the human body. Named by molecular biologist Josh Lederberg, the human body contains over 10 times more microbiomes than human cells, though no one really knew about them until the 1990’s, when they were first discovered.

Scientists view microbiomes as a major player in terms of health and disease; research has shown that the human microbiome may have an impact in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and even certain cancers. Certain combinations of microbes in the stomach, some scientists believe, can also cause obesity. Microbes can even affect the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, which can lead to chemical imbalances like schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder. Stomach microbes may even be involved with ulcers.

The microbiome’s powerful effects aren’t only reserved for humans; research shows that they have just a big an impact on plants and animals. One study showed that Astragalus, a botanical used to boost the immune system, was effective not because of its own properties, but because of the microflora (the plant version of microbiomes) attached to it. This is important for us humans who consume plants, such as nori, or seaweed in Japanese. The marine bacteria on seaweed, it was found, affects the microbiomes in the bellies of those who eat it, by giving over the genome code the gut microbes needed to digest the seaweed. This sort of genetic interchange lends new meaning to the phrase, “You are what you eat.”

With this in mind, one is compelled to take pause when considering the genetic messages the human gut gets from food that’s genetically modified, lacking in nutrients or “fast food”. Said Ian Myles of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland in Time Magazine, “Our bodies are a kind of mini-ecosystem and anything that disturbs our bacteria can alter our health in profound ways.” Based on what we know about microbiomes, it can be argued the food we consume has a profound affect not only on our physical health, but perhaps on the very materials that makes us who we are. A study published in 2014 in Nutrition Journal found that fast food can not only increase the risk of cancer, inflammation, infections and allergic reactions, but also, if eaten habitually, can damage the gut’s Microbiome and encode itself into the body’s DNA. This means that not only will your body suffer, but so will your offspring.

Even further, research shows that the change of balance of bacteria in the stomach as the result of an unhealthy diet may be irreversible and can dramatically weaken the immune system. Even the help of probiotics or supplements may not fully bring the body back to balance, unless an entire lifestyle change is made as well. The standard Western diet, which is full of high-fat, high-carbohydrate, and nutrient-deficient foods, is particularly threatening to the gut’s bacteria balance. However, by creating an eating plan filled with whole foods, there is a chance of recovery, particularly when combined with exercise and a healthy lifestyle.