There have been exciting discoveries about the microbiome that lead to a radical change in how we view the human body. “Microbiome” is a new name for something long known about, the teeming colonies of bacteria and fungi that exist all around the body. We need these micro-organisms in order to digest food, but the existence of so-called “intestinal flora” isn’t news either. So why did the microbiome become exciting?
The biggest reason can be summarized as “The microbiome is us.” Instead of being invaders or microscopic hitchhikers, the microbiome represents the continuity of life itself. Microbial DNA is woven into human DNA, which immediately tells us that far from being enemy germs, thousands of species of bacteria, viruses, and fungi brought our ancestors the news of the world as it applies to the evolution of life. A world cloud of DNA moves in, around, and through every living thing.
In natural history museums our hominid ancestors look small and primitive, but there is an invisible link that binds us to them, the microbiome. There are other microbiome locations in the mouth, on the skin, and in the armpits and groin, but let’s limit ourselves to the gut microbiome, since it is incredibly complex, with an estimated 2,000 species of microbial life, and it is life-giving.
Trying to grasp what is going on in the process of digestion is like trying to give a cloud sharp edges, because everyone’s microbiome is constantly shifting. From day to day the exact population is different. This also makes it very difficult to define the ideal microbiome. But what our ancestors ate defines what you eat today. “You are what you ate” tells the story of your life today, too, because the partnership, or symbiosis, between microbes and the rest of the body begins at birth.
From that moment onward, the gut microbiome was deeply involved in the following issues: the strength of your immune system, your allergies or lack of them, the status of inflammation in your body (inflammation is now suspected as the chief culprit, along with stress, in most if not all chronic disorders), your appetite and digestion, and even your emotions, since there’s a direct pathway in the nervous system between the brain, the digestive tract, and the main nerves that bring information about breathing, heart rate, and your perception of the outside world.
Right now there are more clues perhaps than a solid understanding of the microbiome. The emerging popularity of prebiotics and probiotics, for example, seems like a good thing but is based on wobbly science. Swallowing millions of microbes in a pill barely encroaches on the trillions that reside in your digestive tract. Certain findings are very tantalizing, however.
· One major trend isn’t going our way. In recent decades, dietary patterns in North America and elsewhere have undergone major changes, with increased amounts of red meat, high fat foods, and refined sugars. This ‘Westernization’ of diets combined with a sedentary lifestyle has resulted in modifications to the gut microbiome, which may partially contribute to a greater incidence of inflammatory disorders, such as heart disease, obesity, inflammatory bowel disorder and even depression
Suggested action: Promote what everyone’s microbiome prefers, a whole-foods diet, a wide range of fiber (the food of the microbiome) from plants, grains, and nuts, and an anti-inflammatory diet in general.
· Your intestines contain almost the entire ecosystem of bacteria in your body, and bacteria are the major population of the microbiome. While humans are genetically almost identical to one another as a species and around 85% identical to mice, bacteria are very divergent genetically among themselves. This implies that maximum diversity is key to a healthy microbiome.
Suggested action: Don’t zero down to just a few favorite goods. Make your diet as diverse as possible.
· While the bacteria comprise about 1-2 kg of our body weight, they vastly outnumber human cells. The microbiome contains some 3.3 million genes compared to the 19,000 in the human genome. This genetic diversity leads to a vast array of protein products with a far greater spectrum of properties than that produced by the human body itself. Gut bacteria participate in: 1) the synthesis of vitamins, neurotransmitters, and essential amino acids, 2) transformation of bile acids, and 3) drug metabolism, to name but a few roles.
Suggested action: Become more open-minded and positive about microbes; avoid the trap of germaphobia. There is enormous promise in bacteria as sources of new drugs, a decrease in chronic disorders, and longer, healthier lifespans. At the very least, be humble in the face of these, our most powerful evolutionary allies. The collective gene pool of life on Earth is almost entirely that of the microbiota.
· The relative balance between different types of bacteria in our gut is a general bellwether for wellness. For example, obesity is correlated with reduced microbial diversity, specifically an increased ratio of Firmicutes (one broad group of bacteria) to Bacteroidetes (another broad group). A mere 20% shift in the bacterial abundance from Bacteroidetes to Firmicutes causes an extra 150 calories gained per day translating into 3 pounds of weight gain every 2 months. Firmicutes are proinflammatory and tend toward obesity, while Bacteroidetes provide a counterbalance.
Suggested action: Focus on the microbiome as the source, and remedy, of obesity. This implies once again that an organic whole-foods diet is key to wellness. Obesity is just one aspect; there are implications for everything from immunity to psychological symptoms.
· There is two-way communication between the brain and the microbiome, and the signals being sent are attentive to everything that is happening chemically in your body as well as neurologically. In the most fundamental way, every cell eavesdrops on every other cell, and what harms one system harms the whole. The main focus here is on the stress response and the immune response, which is proinflammatory. A healthy microbiome by implication communicates to the rest of the body, setting up feedback loops that either promote well-being or detract from it.
Suggested action: The more we know about the microbiome, the more critical the need for stress reduction. This is the message that should cut through all the noise about medical advice, drugs, and diet. Get a good night’s sleep, take active measures to reduce the daily stress you experience, particularly the repeated small stresses we tend to overlook, and go back to Nature in what you eat.
The suggested actions we’ve given are neither new nor radical. Most sound like proper advice heard over and over again. But the microbiome reinforces two overriding facts. The mind and body are a whole, a bodymind, and this bodymind is dominated, genetically speaking, by the bacteria that inhabit us. From these two facts alone an entirely new and better view of human well-being is already developing.
About DEEPAK CHOPRA™ MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His 90th book and national bestseller, Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential (Harmony Books), unlocks the secrets to moving beyond our present limitations to access a field of infinite possibilities. For the last thirty years, Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution and his latest book, Total Meditation (Harmony Books) will help to achieve new dimensions of stress-free living and joyful living. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.” www.deepakchopra.com