What would you think if I told you weight gain, metabolic disease, autoimmune disease, cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease all have one thing in common? If I’d heard that five years ago, I would’ve been confused. Then I would’ve been intrigued. It’s a bold claim. If true, it’s huge. If false, then never mind. Either way, it’s worth running down the truth—which I did. Believe it or not, I learned the latest research in health science reveals our microbiome and gut health is one of primary, underlying drivers of chronic illness in the U.S. Researchers now consider the microbiome a hidden organ: it’s a living thing, adapted for a specific function, unique among all the systems in the human body. This amazing hidden organ is much more than what doesn’t meet the eye—we can’t see what’s going on, but it’s always working.
“All disease begins in the gut.” -Hippocrates of Kos, 3rd Century B.C.E.
History teaches us the famous Greek physician, widely considered to be the father of modern medicine, said these words over two thousand years ago. He had no access to modern technology and no knowledge of modern immunology, but he was absolutely on to something big. And that something is now verified by 21st century research. Get ready, because in this article I’m going to spend some time breaking down hard facts and information about your microbiome that will either help you win your next game of trivia or motivate you to make changes to your life. If you truly internalize what you’re about to read, you might just end up changing the way you eat, the way you work out, and the way you handle stress—all in the name of better gut health.
I need to clarify what I mean when I say gut.
First, I’m talking about the trillions of amazing microbes—including bacteria, yeasts, viruses, fungi, and more—currently living inside your digestive system. Collectively, these friendly tenants are called your microbiome. Think of it as your personal, internal garden. There may be some weeds in there, but ideally, your garden is populated by a variety of different plants working together to create a flourishing and nourishing space.
Second, I’m talking about your actual digestive tract. It’s huge. If your digestive tract were stretched out lengthwise, it would be the height of a three-story building. That’s not all—if we measured the surface area of your digestive tract, it would be equivalent to that of a tennis court. This surface area protects you from disease and forms the foundation of a healthy immune system. It’s just as important to your body as soil is to plants growing in a garden. Healthy soil yields healthy plants that grow to their full height. They thrive, spread their seeds, and the cycle of life continues. Unhealthy soil, on the other hand, yields unhealthy plants that never reach their full potential. They’re stunted, sad, and eventually wither and die. The same is true of your digestive tract: a healthy one yields a thriving microbiome capable of reaching its full potential, whereas an unhealthy one yields an unhealthy group of microbes incapable of doing the good work they’re meant to do.
Here’s another amazing thing most people don’t know: 70-80% of your immune system is in the gut. In terms of immunology, i.e. how your body battles disease, your skin is considered your first line of defense. And the second? You guessed it, the digestive tract! For some reason, this gets me really excited. Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m totally geeking out—but I want you to get excited about this stuff, too. Because in all honesty, what I’m telling you is so very important. Take a moment to digest (see what I did there?) these scary stats:
- Studies in animal and human subjects link poor gut health to the following conditions: ALS, Alzheimer’s, depression, Celiac disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Crohn’s disease, Hashimoto’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (which is code for we don’t know what’s going on but here’s a fancy diagnosis for you), Lupus, Metabolic Syndrome, Rheumatoid arthritis, and more.
- According to the Journal of American Medical Association, chronic health conditions among U.S. children rose 15% between the years of 1994 and 2006. Many of these are conditions are related to autoimmune disorders.
- The incidence of type I diabetes is rising at an astonishing rate—close to 4% a year. The worst part of this statistic is that the age of onset is getting lower and lower. Our children are vulnerable!
- The CDC reports that between 1997 and 2011, the diagnosis of food allergies in children has increased from 3.4% to 5.1%. That’s a jump of 50%.
- Statistics from The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association indicate over 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from some sort of autoimmune disease. This is more than both cancer and heart disease.
These statistics are pretty grim, I’ll admit, but here’s the empowering thing: the remedy for all these problems starts in the gut. A healthy digestive tract and microbiome can help prevent autoimmune disease from taking over your life, and if you’ve already been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, you can significantly improve your symptoms if you manage your gut and microbiome properly.
So how do you do it?
The path to a healthy gut is two-fold:
- We have to understand our microbiome.
- We have to cultivate a healthy environment for the microbiome to thrive.
Before I give you the keys to a healthy, thriving gut, I want to back up and offer a few more facts about your microbiome. Here’s one that makes me smile: if you extract all the microbes from your body and put them on a scale, they’d weigh somewhere between 2 and 5 pounds, depending on the person. I love this bit o’ trivia, because I get to tell my clients that when they get on the scale, they can automatically subtract about a few pounds just because of the bacteria living inside them. In an ideal world, 85% of these critters will be either health-neutral or health-positive. There are almost always some negative bacteria hanging around, but not enough to cause health problems. Let’s go back to the weed metaphor: there will always be some weeds in the garden, but a few won’t really hurt anything—they’re just a minor annoyance.
Another interesting fact is that the foundation of your microbiome was most likely set while you were a toddler. But by the time you reach adulthood, there are probably upwards of 2,000 different species living inside you. Celebrate diversity! The more the merrier, especially if they are the beneficial strains, like Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. They protect you, help digest your food, create vitamins such as Vitamin K, improve insulin sensitivity, control inflammation and much more. They’re crucial for your health and essential for weight loss, weight maintenance, and preventing weight gain.
Okay, enough geeking out on facts. I can’t help it sometimes. Here are my top tips on improving gut health and preventing gut disease:
Eat Local Food (and local dirt).
A steady diet of locally sourced food is one of the best things you can do to improve the health of your microbiome. A regional or community farmer’s market is the best place to find local food. And I’m not kidding about the dirt: the microbes found in your local soil will most likely help you digest the foods that grow near you, especially if it comes from healthy, rich soil. Don’t feel like you have to clean every speck of dirt off of your carrots or tomatoes. It can your microbiome some good.
Eat More Plants.
Healthy bacteria thrive on plant-based foods. Once your digestive enzymes break down those veggies and they hit your colon, the resident bacteria feed off the fiber your body doesn’t absorb, and produce essential short-chain fatty acids. One in particular is called butyrate, which has been linked to improved insulin sensitivity and better weight maintenance. Your microbes need your help—and the best help you can give them is the food they need to survive. We can’t live without water and your microbes can’t thrive without plants. Boom.
Avoid the Gut Grenades.
In his book Eat Dirt, Dr. Josh Axe calls antibiotics a “gut grenade” because when you take antibiotics, they kill indiscriminately—they don’t know the difference between healthy and unhealthy bacteria. They work wonders when you really need them, but at the same time, they don’t do your microbiome any favors. It’s no wonder many experience people gastrointestinal distress when taking antibiotics: a grenade has been detonated inside them! Stress, processed food, and certain medication aside from antibiotics (check with your doctor) can also wreak havoc on your microbiome.
Members of the Yanomami tribe, a group of people living in a mountainous rainforest in South America, are said to have the healthiest digestive tract in the world. They live very close to nature and have very little contact with the modern world. They don’t use hand sanitizer or antibiotics, and there’s quite literally no processed food in their lives other than that packed in by scientists and anthropologists researching their way of life. Their diet includes fish, meat from animals the hunt and dress themselves, insects, root vegetables, and a variety of plants most of us wouldn’t recognize.
Consider New Additions.
Probiotics are worth looking into—after all, when we break down the word, what we find is this: pro means “for” and biot means “life,” so probiotics are for life! Another fact about gut health which I’m totally unashamed to express my full geek love. Anyways! Look for a probiotic with at least 50 billion CFU and includes two of these groups: Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. You want multiple strains in your probiotic; a minimum of seven strains is ideal.
At the end of the day, there are many things you can do to improve the health of your microbiome. At Skyterra, we’re all about the microbiome. We like to keep things simple. We love getting outside, we’re passionate about serving locally-sourced food from Western North Carolina, and our program cultivates an environment that decreases stress and increases total health. Come join us here—we’d love to help change you from the inside out. Now you know we mean that literally!