Healing the Microbiome is a topic of discussion in my shop almost daily. The health of this part of our body is tied to many of the health issues humanity faces today. The good news is that healing it is not as complicated as you might think.
Scientists now call the gut our second brain. So did our ancestors. It is a place of autonomy - this part of the body is able to function without checking in with the orb that sits on top of our shoulders. Some say it's a place of instinct, a place of truth, a place our ancestors used for survival. Science has found a connection between our gut, our mental health, and many other health issues.
I'm the founder and owner of Spiral Herbal Remedies, an Herbalism shop located at 810 Washington Ave in Brooklyn. My favorite part of my job is talking to people about what's going on in their bodies and trying to figure out how I can help them heal. The majority of people I see present with some sort of inflammatory process. During our discussions, I might suggest the Organic, Plant-based tinctures, oils, salves, and teas I make, lifestyle changes, and usually, a discussion about gut health.
New research suggests an unhealthy gut or microbiome contributes to 90% of all diseases, including IBS, autism, allergies, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. It also suggests that our well-being, our mental health, and our feelings of security, are tied to our gut and our microbiome. Science has linked gut health to inflammation, particularly inflammation of the nervous system and brain. Traditional healing practices have always advised changes in diet as part of a healthy living strategy and now science has come to understand the connection to our wellbeing as well.
What is the microbiome? Micro - extremely small, Biome - a community of flora and fauna in a habitat. You may have heard that 90% of the cells on or in your body are not human - they’re microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, viruses, and parasites. Our skin and the gut are physically linked at the nose, mouth, and anus. Both systems host millions of living beings that are not human. In fact, your body is made up of only 10% human cells... and that's normal.
How is that possible? The truth is that in nature, it is not unusual. Indigenous cultures have always thought of humans as just one part of a giant macrocosm that we now call the planet and universe. Each living and inanimate being is part of the whole. Our focus has shifted off of this interdependence and onto our individual spheres of existence but our ancestors knew. The planet has stopped giving us gentle reminders and has now begun beating us over the head to get us to wake up to this fact with fires, floods, viruses, heat waves, drought, etc.
The macro view is interdependence. Now let’s switch to a micro view. If you swab your hand or any other part of your skin and look at it under a microscope, you will find that you’re covered with bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and other organisms called archaea - which inhabit hot springs and salt lakes along with the human body. Those same microorganisms live in our noses, throats, and intestines. The so-called “bad” bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can make us sick - live there as well. They only become problematic when they're given a chance to proliferate. I'll cover those circumstances below. Here’s the thing, all of them are supposed to be there. We become ill when they're out of balance.
Picture a landscape with trillions of beings competing for space and resources (sound familiar?). They control each other’s spread by excreting substances that prevent one another from moving into their space. In a healthy gut, no one organism dominates, everything is kept in balance. In this state of equilibrium, the rest of our body is healthy too.
Science has learned a lot about what bacteria do for humans. They aid in digestion, stimulate parts of our immune system and alter our mood. Together with other microorganisms, they form a physical barrier that prevents problematic microorganisms from penetrating our gut and skin. Yeast, a fungus, has even been found to drive our food cravings. I'll explain more below.
Let’s step back again and think about what is going on. We have a variety of different species living in and on our bodies. They are our cohorts, collaborating with us and collaborating with each other.
Interspecies collaboration is not uncommon. When it happens, it’s called mutualism. Each organism benefits in some way from its interrelationships. For microorganisms - human skin, the intestine, nose, and throat are a warm and (mostly) moist environment where these organisms can thrive, sustained by a ready supply of nutrients. In exchange, we benefit from their presence.
Not as much is known about why the fungi and viruses are there but a brilliant example of mutualism is how fungi work in the landscape, serving trees. You can extrapolate from there. Fungi create networks between the roots of trees, called the microrhyizome. These networks allow trees to transfer nutrients to each other. They feed kin that are weak or sick. "Mother" trees send nutrients to offspring growing beneath their canopy who don't receive much light and can't completely provide for themselves. Trees chopped down hundreds of years ago have been kept alive by kin. Perhaps those trees were the center of a network and keeping that stump alive keeps the network open. Tree-kin also create groves and living in a grove creates microclimates where moisture and temperatures are stabilized. The trees thrive by working together and fungi, an unrelated species, are responsible for that collaboration. What’s in it for the fungi in this mutualistic relationship? Access to nutrients they can’t produce on their own.
It's safe to assume the fungi are happy to have us as their hosts since they're alive and well within and on us. But what's in it for humans? One study found that fungi might be responsible for controlling inflammation in the gut. We’re still not sure why viruses are there but trust that there is some reason for their existence, perhaps only to mirror to our own capacity to wreak havoc when we proliferate.
Another benefit of a healthy microbiome is that it keeps foreign, potentially pathogenic microorganisms from setting up shop - there is no room for them. Trouble happens when one group of microorganisms is killed off. Antibiotics, preservatives, and GMOs kill bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites, leaving gaps in the microbiome landscape. Those gaps are quickly filled by other microorganisms, throwing off the balance, and allowing other groups of microorganisms to proliferate, including those that cause inflammation and illness.
Keeping a balance between the “good” and “bad” microorganisms is important to our health but how do we accomplish that? Here are some suggestions.
1. Add fermented food to your diet daily. Fermented foods contain “probiotics” - a mix of healthy bacteria and yeast. Probiotics from food are more bioavailable than pills. In food, they're alive, not in a state of suspended animation.
Supplementing with probiotic-rich foods will help build up and sustain a colony of healthy microorganisms in your gut. You want to have a diverse colony of microorganisms, so eating a variety of fermented foods daily has an advantage. Humans used to ferment food to keep it from spoiling so it was a normal part of our diet. Preservatives and refrigeration have eliminated the need for fermentation. Add it back into your diet. There's some evidence that foods specific to your cultural heritage might work better than others since humans coevolved with these microorganisms.
*** Foods high in probiotics include Kimchi, Kombucha, Kefir, Sauerkraut, Pickles, Natto, Kvass, Raw Cheese, Raw Apple Cider Vinegar, Brine Cured Olives, Tempeh, Miso, Fish Sauce, Yogurt (if it has live cultures), raw milk, cheese, etc. Pasteurized milk products have been boiled at high temperatures. This kills all of the natural bacteria in the milk. Fresh raw milk and raw milk products from an organic farmer are loaded with good bacteria/probiotics. Look online, these farms now send trucks into the city to deliver to those who don't live close by. Check out your local farmer's market too.
2. Avoid processed foods. Cook at home with fresh ingredients more often. Processed foods not only contain fewer nutrients, they’re loaded with preservatives that kill the microorganisms that spoil food as well as the microorganisms in your gut.
3. Avoid GMOs. Genetically modified plants have been designed to survive herbicides/weed killers (usually roundup). Entire fields of crops are now regularly sprayed with herbicides. The weeds are killed but the crops survive. Herbicides remain on the crops and we consume them. Some plants have been Modified to excrete pesticides, which we eat. There is evidence that the combination of these two modifications is particularly toxic and damaging to our gut microbiome.
4. Add more Plants to your diet. Think of food as medicine. If plants can be used to heal in herbalism, start thinking about the plants we consume in the same way. The bacteria and yeast in your gut need fiber to survive. Feed them. This includes fruit, veggies, and whole grains. For those who are gluten intolerant and can't eat grains, try organic, non-GMO grains.
5. Cut back on your consumption of processed, simple sugars. They are digested so quickly that your microbiome doesn't have a chance to consume them. Without a regular food source, the microorganisms might resort to consuming your stomach lining. Also, yeast loves sugar and it will proliferate, disrupting the balance.
***When I mentioned food cravings above, this is what I was thinking. Some research suggests that a high amount of yeast in your gut actually tells your brain to eat more sugar. Seriously. A microorganism is dictating your behavior.
***Watch this video for an example of how another fungus called cordyceps, dictates the behavior of its host.
6. Modify your alcohol intake. Alcohol kills microorganisms. Think about the movies that showed field surgeons in the civil war. How did they clean a wound? They poured alcohol over it to disinfect it.
7. Avoid taking antibiotics unless necessary. This includes those hand sanitizers that kill microorganisms on your hands. Wash with soap and water instead. This way you only remove the outer layer of gunk on your skin, not the good bacteria, etc. that live just below the surface.
***Spiral Herbal Remedies' Gone Viral tincture is a great alternative to antibiotics. The plants it contains have been found to kill Strep and Staph along with the flu virus and parasites without killing your "good" bacteria.
8. Try to quit smoking. Aside from damaging your lungs, it kills the microbiome in your respiratory system, (yes, they live there too).
***Think about switching to Spiral Herbal Remedies' Chill Your Bones smoking blend to help you quit. Use it wean yourself off of tobacco. It relaxes you while you're decreasing the amount of tobacco you consume. It's nonaddictive and tastes and smells great.
9. Emotional stress, a lack of exercise, and poor sleeping habits also have a destructive impact on your microbiome.
***Spiral Herbal Remedies' CBD oil has been shown to be effective on the nervous system, calming it down, helping with anxiety, depression, sleep, and pain. It also contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
***Check out this blog post for other ways to control stress.
10. Switch to organic, preservative-free skin products. There is a connection between your gut microbiome health and your skin microbiome health. 60-80% of what we put on our skin is directly absorbed into our blood. Don't put toxins on your skin.
*** Spiral Herbal Remedies' Organic, preservative-free skin products were designed for that reason.
Check out my website for a full selection of the tinctures, teas, salves, etc that are available, or stop by our shop at 810 Washington Ave when you are in the neighborhood.
If you've used my products, I would greatly appreciate a review on google. Share a review in the next 7 days and you'll be entered to win one of two $25 gift cards to our online store.
Use the Discount Code MICROBIOME for 10% off your orders through Aug 4th.
Now, go buy some fermented food. :))