Did you know that you have more bacteria in and on your body than you have cells? It’s true. In fact, the latest evidence suggests that roughly 39 trillion bacterial cells are living among your 30 trillion human cells (Crew, 2016). So, in a sense, you are not entirely you. Instead, you are a walking home to countless microorganisms. YIKES!
But don’t worry! Much of that bacteria is beneficial and helps you survive. You need them and they need you! Of course, while some of these are beneficial bacteria, we must never forget that some can be harmful. That is to say that some cause disease, some stop disease, and some simply help us digest food and absorb nutrients. What you need to understand is that your behaviors and decisions ultimately decide which group becomes dominant. Of course, that dominant group decides how you feel.
What follows is not some highly technical breakdown or a deep dive into how this all works. Instead, it is a brief overview along with a few thoughts that highlight the confusion that many have on the topic. If anything, let the following be a reminder that things are often more complicated than we give them credit for, and then let it open the door to considerations you may not have otherwise allowed yourself to have.
As I inferred, when it comes to our microbiome, our goal is to have a solid balance. Too much of any one type of bacteria could be a very bad thing. Too many of a certain kind usually means infection, and this is true even with the good guys. And yes, while rare, it is possible to give yourself a probiotic infection.
Ideally, you want a wide variety of bacteria doing the job they were intended to do, but also keeping the other groups in check. Consider it a micro-system of checks and balances. However, in order to proactively achieve that balance, we need a better understanding of how the microbiome thing works.
Let me provide you with an example using only one species of bacteria. The Mayo Clinic has stated that Lactobacillus acidophilus belongs to a group of bacteria that live in the human small intestine and vagina (Mayo Clinic, 2016). This has been confirmed by many other agencies and researchers as well. This one species of bacteria is now believed to help us maintain a healthy intestinal tract and they help us with digestion (Mayo Clinic, 2013).
While all of this sounds great, understand that the role of L. acidophilus is complex and we are still learning about the many functions it truly has. However, what we do know about it is rather amazing. For instance, this bacteria helps keep the vagina healthy and helps to crowd out bacteria that cause things like vaginosis. It also helps crowd out harmful bacteria in the gut while helping us digest and absorb nutrients.
Take note of how it crowds out other bacteria. The question we should ponder is how that is achieved. We know that L. acidophilus helps maintain an acidic environment in the parts it inhabits, preventing the growth of otherwise harmful bacteria. In fact, that is what acidophilus means; acid-loving.
Let’s stop there to think about the previous point a little deeper. Have you ever heard about someone trying to adjust their pH because they think it results in health? How many articles have you seen talking about the supposed benefits of trying to remove acid from your body by eating certain foods? I often wonder how many people needlessly suffer in their attempt to chase that alkaline dragon.
Think of it in steps. If having an acidic environment increases acid-loving bacteria, and these acid-loving bacteria prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, and if the bacteria we harbor inside us ultimately influences our health status, then what would reducing the acidity of the intestine or vagina really do? It seems to me that the result is probably is not good.
Perhaps most don’t know that your intestines need to be slightly acidic for optimal digestion because an acidic environment is best for your digestive bacteria. Perhaps most don’t know that you cannot change the pH of your blood anyway, so it’s sort of a silly pursuit anyway. Or, perhaps this could be a warning about fad diets because if you try to rid yourself of the acidic environments that our healthy bacteria worked so hard to create, you could be setting yourself up for disease.
It’s rather simple. You need your L. acidophilus populations to thrive. When they thrive, you thrive. When you don’t have a healthy population, you may find yourself getting sick and your digestion becoming problematic. Of course, when you get sick or have troubled digestion, it seems that the best answer is to restore the healthy L. acidophilus population. Cause and effect!
How do we know this? Well, Lactobacillus acidophilus supplements have been successfully used to treat or prevent vaginal yeast infections, yeast infections of the mouth, diarrhea caused by antibiotics, and urinary tract infections (MedlinePlus, 2016). So, how do you think that worked? Well, these supplements work by increasing the population of bacteria and reestablishing that much-needed acidic environment – helping the body maintain the normal consistency of bacteria in the stomach, intestines, and vagina.
As you can imagine, L. acidophilus (as a supplement) is now one of the most commonly used probiotics, or “good germs” on the market. Essentially, L. acidophilus is your personal body defender. Only, many don’t seem to understand why or how it all works, so they find themselves in a loop. When they loop back around, they find that the supplementation didn’t work long-term. Well, it most definitely will not work if you are proactively undermining what they are supposed to be doing in the first place. And they most definitely will not work if you’re not consuming the types of foods that further encourage their growth. This is to say that taking probiotics is sort of pointless if you’re not going to encourage the right environment for them or feed them what they need to survive.
And understand that we are just talking about one type of bacteria here. Out of the trillions of bacteria present, it is estimated that the human body hosts more than ten thousand different kinds of bacteria, with many of them actually helping the immune system (Smithsonian, 2016). So what happens when you add to the destruction of the microbiome with antibiotics, processed (dead) foods, fad diets, chemically-laced water, and so on? The answer is dis-ease!
It is theorized that the beneficial gut flora plays a crucial role in our immune system by keeping the body’s immunity active and doing its job. I believe this to be true. It is now said that around 80% of our immunity is located in the gut wall (Mercola, 2016). That sounds reasonable based on what I have seen with my own eyes. It is also said that nearly all diseases can be traced back to damaged or abnormal gut flora (Ghadimi, 2016). Now, I don’t know about “all disease,” and while the statement seems rather bold, it may not be too far off. To give you an example, it is now being theorized that whether or not someone gets Long-Covid largely depends on the health of the gut flora. Furthermore, it has been confirmed that our microbiome has an impact on our mental health. In fact, recent studies demonstrate that the gut microbiome can also play a role in muscle growth and development. At the very least, these ideas should demonstrate the important and complex role that bacteria play in our overall existence and happiness. Of course, it also means that Hippocrates was right, but I digress.
The fact is that science has begun to recognize that bacteria are critical in many areas of our health. In fact, we now know that you can dramatically improve the health of individuals with certain diseases by performing something called a fecal matter transplant (FMT) – using material provided by a healthy donor. Essentially, they are taking a mass of bacteria from a healthy person and putting it into someone who is sick. With this procedure, suddenly, the sick become healthy again. This is because the sick person is essentially borrowing the immune system of the healthy donor.
Now, I don’t want to beat that horse too much, but hopefully, you are beginning to see just how important these little friends can be and just how big of an impact they can have on our health. Be careful what you believe. Be careful what you buy into. And whatever you do, stop following things that “sound about right.” Do some research.
Now, let’s talk about the source because I have seen suggestions stating that our best source of bacteria might be probiotic foods or probiotic supplements. Sure, these are decent sources of beneficial bacteria, but they are not the source of our microbiome. And just for your information, by the numbers, probiotic foods or probiotic supplements provide only a drop in the bucket to what we have and what we need. That is why these need to be consumed on a regular basis to reap any potential health benefits.
Actually, most of us inherit our gut flora from our mothers at birth and pick up the rest from our environment. It is believed that babies swallow their first mouthful of bacteria during delivery, then that bacteria settle in the baby’s intestines and eventually becomes the base gut flora. To clarify, the initial and PRIMARY source of probiotics is from a mother’s vagina. A good portion of that flora is lactic acid bacteria like L. acidophilus, L. crispatus, L. jensenii, and L. gasseri, but there are many others.
The total microbiome, of course, is a mixture of bacteria from numerous sources. For example, many babies are breastfed. Breastmilk has over 700 different types of bacteria that also find their way to the gut. This is yet another way mom passes her gut flora onto her baby.
Next, the baby will put their mouths on everything they can. In this process, they acquire all sorts of bacteria from their environment. This creates diversity and environmental immunity. From there, we eventually eat food. The foods we eat either feed or starve members of the microbiome. Of course, antibiotics, chlorine, fluoride, etc., forge a particular environment over time as well.
Regardless, the point is that whatever lives in the mother’s digestive system, in many ways, becomes a big part of the baby’s digestive system as well. This is also why sterile environments can be so problematic. Of course, the mother’s digestive system was inherited from her mother and the numerous exposures and decisions that she made, and so on and so forth. Cause and effect.
Granted, not all babies are born vaginally. Many professionals can attest, and it does not take a genius to glimpse the idea that cesarean born – bottle-fed babies acquire completely different gut flora than those that are vaginally born and breastfed. This difference might also suggest a reason for those children dealing with a completely different array of medical issues throughout their lives. And on a sidenote, interventions such as FMT’s, probiotics, and diet decisions dramatically alter a microbiome regardless of how poor and superior they may have started. For me, this merely demonstrates how fragile the system can really be, but that it can also be repaired.
I want you to think of it like this. If you starve something, it will not be very strong. If you feed something it will have strength. The question we need to ponder is whether we are feeding our good bacteria, or feeding the bad? So, let’s talk about food for a moment.
Indeed, probiotics supplements, probiotic foods, and even prebiotic foods are important and do amazing things for us. At the same time, we know that processed foods substantially and negatively affect gut flora (Mercola, 2016). We also know that drinking milk and eating meat from animals that are routinely given antibiotics, steroids, and other drugs may also damage our gut flora. Furthermore, we know that too many sugary foods and refined carbohydrates increase the number of harmful bacteria and create a habitat for disease because these are the types of foods that harmful bacteria thrive on (Mercola, 2009). In fact, let me clarify that point by saying that processed food, refined carbs, and sugar (white bread, cakes, biscuits, pastries, boxed foods, and pasta) promote denser populations of harmful bacteria and invite fungi, worms, and other parasites to make a home in your gut. Of course, these foods also encourage an array of other issues such as diabetes.
This article is not meant to tell you what to eat. Instead, it is meant to provide you with some things to think about regarding the impact of your decisions on your microflora. It is so much more than eating an apple, taking a probiotic pill, or drinking a certain beverage. When we think about our microbiome, we have to think about it holistically and over time. We have to consider our nutritional habits and be willing to challenge our nutritional misconceptions.
I would like you to walk away from this article with the idea that not all bacteria are harmful and that we actually need bacteria to help us remain healthy. However, in order for us to remain healthy, our microbiome must be properly fed and be diverse. What we consume (over time) plays a significant role in how healthy and diverse our microflora can be. Ultimately, the things we choose to consume (or not) significantly impact what our overall health will be down the road. And mothers, understand that what you consume can dramatically impact the microflora of your children.
And no, animal products are not the devil in this equation. There is a really good reason why things like yogurt, kefir, whey, and cheese are so beneficial to us and why studies are starting to find that lean and healthy meat may balance the composition of gut bacteria and reduce inflammation. Instead, the problem seems to be rooted more in how far we get away from what nature had planned. It seems the further one gets away from that plan, the sicker they become.
Perhaps we need to look at food differently. Perhaps we need to look at health differently. For sure, we need to look at bacteria differently. We must be mindful of what we feed our little friends (and our little enemies), but we need to take it a step further to also be mindful of what we are doing to the foods that we choose to feed ourselves with. Because when we eat, we are not just feeding ourselves, we are feeding our microbiome. And finally, if we truly want a healthy microbiome, we need to be extremely careful with the fad diets that attempt to manipulate the natural order of things.
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Elements of this article were originally published as a chapter in the book Natural Health Made Easy: The Briobiotic Protocol (2016)
This article was written from a Health Science perspective. Dr. Robertson is a health researcher and educator, not a physician. The information provided here is not medical advice, a professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment, or service to you or any other individual. The information provided is for educational and anecdotal purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional care. You should not use the information in place of a visit, call consultation, or the advice of your physician or other healthcare providers. Dr. Robertson is not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or additional information, services, or product you obtain or utilize. IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY, YOU SHOULD IMMEDIATELY CALL 911 OR YOUR PHYSICIAN.