Inside each of us lies an ecosystem of complexity that supports our existence and well-being. Each of us hosts a hospitable environment for millions of diverse bacteria, both beneficial and pathogenic. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We would never have developed properly functioning immune systems, or absorbed nutrients from our food, or been able to fight off pathogenic bacteria that would’ve loved to call our bodies home.
For many year, the gut and its microbial inhabitants have largely been overlooked. In addition, the practices of modern society have not done much to support it. Our modern world’s affinity for progress and scientific advancement in industrial agriculture, medicine and pharmaceutical drugs, our propensity to stay clean with antibacterial products, our disconnection from the natural world, and the pervasiveness of environmental pollutants have taken a toll on our gut health. As a result, we are left feeling chronically sick and fatigued.
Nowadays, the word “microbiome” has been popping up in both the scientific world and the holistic health world. What does it mean? What does it have to do with our overall health and vitality? Recent research is now beginning to discover and understand the important role that bacteria play in health and disease, and how our dietary choices influence our microbiome. Scientists are discovering a connection between gut bacteria and depression, diabetes, chronic inflammation, obesity, and autoimmune diseases to name a few.
What is the Microbiome?
Did you know that we are comprised of trillions of bacteria? 100 trillion, to be exact. By some estimates, microbes outnumber our human cells ten to one. We are not just humans. We are bacteria!
Microbes (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses) that inhabit us are known collectively as the human microbiota, or microbiome. Similar to the biome of a forest with naturally occurring populations of flora and fauna, the human microbiome contains its own ecosystem of bacteria, also popularly known as “gut flora.” The majority of these microbes are found in our gut, particularly the large intestine.
Microbes on Immunity and Brain Health
The bacteria in our microbiome are beneficial collaborators that regulate essential functions in our body. For example, they help regulate our immune system, digest our food, protect us against pathogenic bacteria, and produce vitamins such as Vitamins B12, riboflavin, thiamine, and Vitamin K, which is needed, among other things, for healthy bones and blood coagulation.
Gut bacteria also influence our nervous system. Our gut hosts 100 million dedicated neurons and is connected to the brain by the vagus nerve, which comprises our enteric nervous system (ENS), or “gut-brain-axis”. Researchers have found that people with depression have different gut microbial populations than healthy individuals do. 80% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut, which shows that that state of our gut can affect our mood.
Herbal and Vitalist Therapeutics to Support the Microbiome
Recent studies show that our modern lifestyle decreases the microbial diversity in our gut. Somehow, scientific advancement and its effect on human progress have led us to…
believe bacteria is bad and to rid ourselves of it completely by using antibacterial products
fear getting dirty in fear we catch a disease-causing pathogen (“stay out of the dirt!”)
consume food wrought with antibiotics, pesticides, and harmful preservatives
be exposed to pervasive environmental pollutants
live stressful on-the-go lives that cause anxiety, fear, and lack of sleep
disconnect from the outdoors / nature (we are more drawn to our screens these days!)
… all of which can disrupt our gut microbes and thus negatively affect our immune systems and emotional health.
Fortunately, we can incorporate small, yet profound changes in our daily life and use herbal allies to promote gut vitality and health! Below are examples of some Vitalist therapeutics and Herbal Allies that can promote a more balanced microbiome:
Get some sunshine! In addition to uplifting mood, Vitamin D supports immune system function,* plays a role in calcium, magnesium and phosphate metabolism, and decreases systemic/chronic inflammation among other things. *Remember that about 70% of your immune system is in your gut!
Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Staying hydrated is vital to keeping your mucous membranes in your GI tract moist and . properly. Your weight in pounds divided by half equals an ideal number of ounces of water to drink daily. Ex. 125 lbs / 2 = 62.5 oz of water
Breathe deeply and slowly. Take a few minutes in the day to pause and breathe deeply and slowly. Breathing in for 4 counts, holding the breath for 4 counts, and then exhaling for 8 counts. Exhaling for longer than when you inhale helps to stimulate your Vagus Nerve which is responsible for activating a parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) state. Relaxation promotes healthy and balanced digestion. Try this upon waking in the morning, in the middle of the day, and before bed.
Spend time in nature. Studies have shown that spending time outdoors can help reduce stress, cultivate feelings of happiness and creativity, as well as lower heart rate and blood pressure, boost the immune system and thus accelerate recovery from illness.
Dandelion Leaf & Root (Taraxacum officinale). This bitter herb can aid in preventing feelings of bloatedness and discomfort before and after meals.
Fennel Seed (Foeniculum vulgare). This classic herbal ally contains essential oils rich with anethole and fenchone which helps to ease bloating and gas.
Ginger Root (Zingiber officinale). Warming to the belly, ginger soothes digestive spasms, bloating, and nausea.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis). Known for supporting a frazzled nervous system, its minty and lemony essence can also help to calm a turbulent belly.
Slippery Elm Bark (Ulmus rubra). The inner bark of this herb has demulcent properties that help to cool and moisten inflamed tissues in the gut.
Cell Press. (2015, April 16). Western lifestyle may limit the diversity of bacteria in the gut. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 7, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150416132203.htm
Courage, Katherine Harmon. (2019). Cultured: how ancient foods can feed our microbiome. S.l.: Avery Pub Group.
Defois, C., Ratel, J., Garrait, G. et al. Food Chemicals Disrupt Human Gut Microbiota Activity And Impact Intestinal Homeostasis As Revealed By In Vitro Systems. Sci Rep 8, 11006 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41598-018-29376-9
Montgomery, D. R., & Biklé, Anne. (2016). The hidden half of nature: the microbial roots of life and health. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.