by Dr. Will Cole
The microbiome’s vastness and importance fascinates me, which is why I write about it so often. This intelligent bacterial ecosystem in your gut makes up the majority of your immune system, produces a large amount of your “happy” neurotransmitter serotonin, and contains 10 times more bacterial cells than you have human cells! You are, in truth, more bacteria than human, a sort of vehicle or host for the microbiome.
In other words, the microbiome’s influence on human health cannot be overstated. These trillions of microbes and their colonies are the manufacturers and managers of how you look, feel, and think. Researchers are quickly learning how much it regulates just about every system of your body. It might sound like science fiction, but it is real.
The Microbiome Connection
When the microbiome is healthy and has a lot of different species, with the beneficial bacteria and fungi outnumbering the potentially pathogenic species, your health is likely to be quite good. However, many lifestyle behaviors, toxic exposures, and dietary choices can compromise gut health, and that can lead to many downstream health issues.
Conditions such as leaky gut syndrome and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) may be both triggered by microbiome imbalance, and can themselves further imbalance the microbiome, but these gut-associated conditions are more obviously microbiome-linked.
What about other health conditions? As the age-old Hippocratic saying goes, “All disease begins in the gut.” Is that true? As it turns out, in many ways, yes. When your microbiome is weakened or damaged, it can “switch on” a number of potential disease processes throughout the body that may, on the surface of things, seem to have very little to do with your actual gastrointestinal system.
Although there is still much research to be done on this subject and we are really only just beginning to understand the microbiome and its far-reaching influence, here are 11 surprising ways an unbalanced and unhealthy microbiome can do a number on your health:
1. Autoimmune conditions
As of now, there are around 100 recognized autoimmune conditions and about 40 other diseases that have an autoimmune component. Because 80% of your immune system resides in your gut, it is no surprise that a damaged microbiome and leaky gut syndrome are preconditions for autoimmunity.
2. Mental health disorders
The gut-brain axis links your gut and brain, which is why, in the medical literature, your gut is actually referred to as “the second brain.” An unhealthy microbiome has been linked to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
3. Poor immune health
The opposite of autoimmunity (an over-reactive immune system), suppressed immunity can be gut-related, too. If you find yourself sick often, you’ll want to support and improve your microbiome health. Chronically low immune system health can be largely due to imbalances in the microbiome, especially due to an overgrowth of opportunistic bacteria, yeast, or fungus, or a parasite.
4. Heart disease
Scientists recently discovered a possible link between the microbiome and cardiovascular disease. Certain bacteria in the gut produce TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide), which is linked to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. It is still unclear which microorganism produces these excessive levels of TMAO, but researchers are hoping that, in the future, manipulation of the microbiome species can help in the prevention and treatment of heart disease.
5. Type II diabetes
This chronic degenerative disease has recently been linked to microbiome disturbances. One study found that transplanting the microbiome of diabetic mice into healthy mice made the healthy mice diabetic as well!
6. Skin conditions
Skin problems like acne, psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis all have microbiome and inflammatory-autoimmune components to them. For many, the missing link to healing their skin issues is healing their microbiome.
7. Weight gain and obesity
Weight loss resistance and obesity have been linked to an imbalance of bacteria in the microbiome. Studies in mice found that overweight mice had a higher number of the bacteria Firmicutes, while thin mice had a higher proportion of the Bacteroidetes bacteria. In human cases, the beneficial bacteria called Lactobacillus rhamnosus was found to support weight loss in women. The microbiome factor may turn out to be a key component for many people seeking to lose weight their body has been holding on to for years.
8. Acid reflux and GERD
Millions of people suffer from acid reflux, or the more serious GERD, and these problems have been correlated with a microbiome dysfunction called SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
A fascinating study out of the University of North Carolina suggests that damage and inflammation of the gut severely decreased the variety of bacterial species in the microbiome. This loss of microbiome diversity allowed a pathogenic bacterial overgrowth of E. coli. Eighty percent of mice with E. coli infection then developed colorectal cancer. This suggests that there may be a cancer-microbiome connection, and I expect researchers may find more evidence of this connection.
10. Asthma and chronic sinus infections
Dysbiosis (imbalance) of microbiome bacteria and an overgrowth of Corynebacterium tuberculostearicum, were shown to be a frequent underlying culprit for asthma and chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS).
11. Constipation and/or diarrhea
This is obvious, and is digestive so it doesn’t exactly go on this list, but I still feel like it’s important to mention that one study found that there was significantly lower amounts of the bacteria Prevotella and increased levels of Firmicutes in constipated patients. Interestingly, the conventional probiotics that people take, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, were not decreased in the microbiomes of the constipated patients, suggesting that supplementing with these may not be the solution to that issue.
Welcome To The Age Of The Microbiome
Some have predicted that this year will be the year of the microbiome. Over the coming years, as we continue to learn more about the microbiome, I suspect this might become the decade of the microbiome, as we continue to learn the specifics about its influence.
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