So, you`ve probably heard a lot of talk about microbiomes lately. There`s mention of them everywhere at the moment… from adverts about skin cream to all sorts of food advertising the benefits of probiotics.
So what is a microbiome?
A microbiome is an area of your body that houses hundreds of trillions of friendly, efficient and protective bacteria that we need to function optimally.
You actually have several areas where you have a microbiome. The main one that is of supreme importance, is in your digestive tract, often called your gut microbiome. You also have them on a smaller scale in your mouth, your nose, your genitals and upon your skin.
When your microbiome isn't as good as it should be, we get issues. We can get eczema, infections down below, strep throat and many uncomfortable digestive related symptoms. We can suffer with brain fog ( you know… that moment where you just can`t remember why you walked in to the kitchen and generally struggle to retain information)
We are prone to depression and anxiety, inflammation in our joints and muscles, hormone problems, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, allergies, food intolerances, asthma, an inability to lose weight- no matter what you do, intense food cravings, headaches… the list goes on…
These organisms have a profound impact on how we absorb the nutrients from our food, how we detoxify and eliminate everyday toxins and the health of our gut lining. When your microbiome is balanced, you stay healthy. You fight off infections more easily, you are more energised and have a better mood. That's because 80% of your immune system is in your microbiome.
Your immune system is responsible for fighting off those pesky bugs that make us feel so unwell, but also for finding and destroying cells that are growing a little weirdly. Every single day, we have cells that grow a little weirdly. Our immune system seeks them out and orders them to die. They then get eliminated, and we are ok. When our immune system doesn`t order these cells to die, they get out of control, multiply and can become the start of a cancerous situation.
So you see how important our microbiome is.
The trouble is, these little guys are quite fragile. Their health relies upon the way we treat them in our everyday lives. Too much sugar in our diet causes our gut to acquire a host of bad bacteria. These bad guys are the bullies that gang up and take over the digestive tract. When they outnumber our defenders then we have a problem called ‘dysbiosis’ and a whole host of the symptoms I mentioned above to go with it. More about sugar later….
Our gut health also goes right back to when we were taking our first breaths in the delivery ward ( or where ever you were born)
The adult microbiome that we have today, began in the womb of our mothers. If they consumed beneficial bacteria, it would find its way to us. It then continued to form through the actual delivery of the baby. The age of 0 - 2 years also has a huge impact on how your microbiome develops, so listen up if you have little kids.
Now, before I say this next bit… Those of you who know me will vouch for the fact that I am the least judgemental person ever. I`m not saying this next bit to mum-shame anyone or make you feel bad about your delivery if you have had children. I`m saying it with love so that you can consider how this may have impacted your kids immunity in order for you to have the knowledge to boost it from this point on. I`m also mentioning it so you can think about your own birth and early childhood and its impact on your immune system and so that those of you who are pregnant or are considering pregnancy can have some food for thought.
In an ideal world, a baby is born vaginally and breastfed.
Now life isn`t always that simple though. Things happen. Birth is a complex and potentially dangerous situation for both mum and baby. If you`ve had a C- section, then you did the right thing under the guidance of some very clever and experienced doctors. Breastfeeding doesn't always work out either and if you had the distress of it being difficult, then I really do sympathise with you and you know what? … It's ok. Your baby was fed and nourished and loved and is perfectly happy. Read on for the facts, but don't beat yourself up.
A vaginal delivery exposes the baby to a healthy dose of beneficial bacteria as it leaves the vaginal canal. This bacteria is unique and through a really complex system of the gut - brain communication (did you know our tummies have their own nervous system!) it sets the tone for the immune system and the mental health of the child from that point onwards.
When I say the mental health of the child, what I mean by that is this-
Our lack of exposure to certain beneficial bacteria can shape our predisposition to anxiety, depression and how we handle the stressful situations that life throws at us. This predisposition can carry on into adulthood.
If we were exposed to these bacteria then we have a different coping mechanism and can be more stress resilient. This isn`t always the case though.
In the days after birth, if we were given antibiotics, or our mothers were, and we were breastfed, then this also had a huge effect on our microbiome. Antibiotics kill bacteria. That's the reason we use them!
The problem is that the pill you take cannot differentiate between the bad guys that are causing your illness and the good guys that are trying to protect you. It has a sweeping effect and kills off everything. It's one of the reasons why the medical community are trying to raise awareness about not having antibiotics. Every time you take them, you destroy a large section of your immune system. You probably know of someone who takes them regularly and ends up catching every bug that is flying around. If you need antibiotics, then please purchase a good probiotic supplement (that's what the beneficial bacteria are known as) to take alongside it.
So if you were a child that was born by C-section, you already had a different start to life in terms of your immunity. Your mum was possibly put on antibiotics because of the risk of infection (I`m going back a few years now when they used to dish them out more readily) and she may or may not have breast fed you. If she did, you were getting drip fed the antibiotics too.
Your microbiome was not up to scratch and may have been the start of your tendency to catch infections and have childhood conditions like asthma and eczema. On top of this, there are statistics that say children under 2 have probably had at least two lots of antibiotics. Now think about it… You already had a lowered immunity from your birth and so you caught nasty bugs, like - ear infections and tonsillitis repeatedly. You were given more antibiotics and the cycle repeated over, and over again. Here you are now with a host of issues because your immune system never really recovered.
Back to sugar…
So as an adult, here you are with a microbiome that is really low in numbers of the good bacteria that keep you feeling tip-top and energised. You are fatigued and achy, have some digestive issues and probably some skin problems along the way. The bad guys largely feed on sugar and they are clever! Really, really clever. And, Sneaky!
You know I mentioned earlier that our tummies have their own nervous system?
These bad guys are like computer hackers… They can manipulate your thoughts and cravings by hacking into that nervous system and literally can get you to crave the sugar that they are desiring so badly to keep themselves alive.
It's like you are being brainwashed as you rise off of the sofa to get that packet of M & Ms that you have in the cupboard! You went to the gym today, or maybe did a nice walk… you are trying your hardest to drink plenty of water and make some really great steps in recovering your health, but you just can't stop that overpowering urge for a sugary treat. The hackers have got you! You are their puppet.
Just knowing this information can really help you control those urges. Knowing that eating the sugary snack will strengthen the bad guys and cause you more problems can really help you understand that you are never going to win this war while you strengthen your opponent! It also helps you understand that it isn't some flaw in your personality where you can`t resist the sugar, you are being controlled!
So the first thing you need to do is cut the sugar right back. Have some back-up plans of other foods that you like pre-prepared and ready to go in the fridge for when you get cravings. Protein is good for keeping them at bay… some shredded roasted chicken pre-prepared can hit the spot, or, if you're veggie then some hummus and dips are good.
Try to avoid starchy snacks like crackers as unfortunately, that converts straight into glucose (sugar) and will feed the bad bacteria what they are craving. Unfortunately, fruit does this too and whilst you are trying to kill off the bad guys, it's best to avoid them. Berries are good, as are nuts. I can't emphasise it enough - be prepared… have some items pre-chopped or ready to handily grab.
Now there's an old saying that ‘a candle burns its brightest at the end’ and here is where being forewarned is being forearmed. As those bad bacteria die off, they will be that bright burning candle. They will be louder than before and your cravings will feel pretty intense. This is because they are desperate. They know they are dying off and they are screaming like a baby that's not had its milk!
This isn't going to last long, the whole process is largely better after a couple of weeks and after a month you will notice that you just don't get sugar cravings, so stay strong!
The other thing that may arise is something called the herxheimer reaction (google that one)
It is a harmless but annoying process that the body has to go through when it is trying to rid itself of bad bacteria or toxins.
As the bad guys die off, they decay and let off nasty gases and toxins that can make you feel pretty yucky for a few days. It can disrupt your sleep, give you headaches, cause break-outs or dry patches, cause inflammation in your joints or muscles and a few other annoying symptoms.
It doesn't last long and is actually a really good sign that your body is healing itself. You need to drink plenty of water or herbal teas to flush it all out and eat plenty of veggies to get your colon working efficiently so you can release it all down the loo. If you don't eat the veggies and drink the water, it will be worse. It's also best to avoid alcohol and caffeine if you can.
There`s a whole topic of other reasons why your sugar needs to be lower in general. It really does have a nasty effect on the body in many, many ways… that's another blog post though.
What can you do to help the situation?
Well, you could supplement with beneficial bacteria. Now the old saying is - start low and go slow. Don`t go racing to get the brand with the most billions of live cultures in it (that`s the figure they are measured in… I`m not just going all exaggeration mad on you)
What is more important is the variety of bacteria that the supplement contains. Lactobacillus acidophilus is the most common strain of probiotic but try to get one which also contains bifidobacteria. A lower dose to start with will be better in the long run as if you are very out of balance in the tum department then too much too soon can cause gas and bloating.
So what about those of us with children? Probiotics are very safe and there are many brands specifically for children. There's also studies that prove that a regular probiotic is more effective at deterring the flu virus in children than the flu vaccine.
I`m not allowed to suggest certain products, but your nutritional therapist or health food shop clerk could help you decide upon this. Of course it's important that kiddo has less sugar too. Stay strong on that one as they can put up quite a fight! Know that you are doing this for them to help them be healthier for the rest of their lives. Know that you are improving their immune system and their body`s whole nourishment. In general, kids get over the cravings quicker than adults but can be a whole lot noisier about it.
Another really great source of beneficial bacteria is found in certain fermented foods. Kimchi, sauerkraut and Kefir are all good sources and readily available from supermarkets. If you are lactose intolerant or avoid dairy then get a coconut based kefir (my personal favourite). Kids also like kefir as it is quite yoghurty in texture.
In conclusion then,
You`ll be surprised by what a difference you can make to your life by getting your microbiome up to scratch and functioning strongly.
The symptoms that restrict your life may have a root cause in the demise of your microbiome over time and can be turned around with a little self-nurturing.
Avoid antibiotics wherever you possibly can and try to avoid your children having them unnecessarily.
If you or your children need an antibiotic, supplement with a probiotic at the same time.
Cut back on the sugars and stock up on healthy snacks.
Supplement with a good quality probiotic.
I`ve only just scratched the surface of a very complex subject here. Look out for news articles in the press over the next decades about the use of probiotics and the microbiome in the treatment of serious diseases. It's being heavily researched as we speak as scientists discover more amazing things about them every day.
I wish you luck and send you love,
Here`s a little corner of the world where I discuss life, our bodies, natural remedies and nature.