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94. The Microbiome and Your Health.

Updated: Mar 28

This is a repost from Dec 2018. There is so much new research that has found links between health issues like Parkinson's, ALS, etc that I wanted to move this up in the blog as a repost. The gut. Our intestines. Scientists now call the gut our second brain. So did our ancestors. It is a place of autonomy, where the body thrives without checking in with that 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. Yes, science has found a connection between our gut and mental health. In my shop Spiral Herbal Remedies, located at 810 Washington Ave, in Brooklyn, NYC, the majority of people I see present with some sort of inflammatory process. During our discussions, I suggest plant-based tinctures, oils, salves, balms, and teas that I make myself in Brooklyn. If you've visited me, you know that most discussions also include gut health. New research suggests an unhealthy gut/microbiome (Dysbiosis) is linked to 90% of all diseases, including IBS, autism, allergies, asthma, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's and rheumatoid arthritis. It also suggests that our well-being, mental health, memory, and feelings of security, are tied to our gut and that which lives within it - our microbiome - we have found that gut health is a huge contributor to inflammation, particularly inflammation of the nervous system and brain.

What is the microbiome? (Micro - extremely small, Biome - a community of flora and fauna in a habitat.) Did you know that 90% of the cells on or in your body are not human - they’re microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, and viruses? Our skin and the inside of our body is host to millions of living beings that are not human. In fact, your body is made up of only 10% human cells. And that's normal. Digest that for a minute. How is that possible? The truth is that in nature, it is not unusual. That’s the way things work. No one, no thing is completely autonomous. I like to think of humans as one part of a giant macrocosm that we call the planet and universe. Each living being, each inanimate being is part of a whole. We can’t always see it, we’re too close. And our focus has shifted off of our environment and onto our individual spheres of existence. But our ancestors knew. This blog post is a gentle reminder.

The macro view is interdependence. Now let’s switch to a micro view. If you take a swab of 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 an organism called archaea - which inhabit hot springs and salt lakes, along with the human body. Those same microorganisms live in our noses, throats, and intestines. And 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. All those "bugs", as the medical world likes to refer to them, are supposed to be there. They serve a purpose. We can't live without them. We know that these organisms compete for space and resources. They control each other’s growth either by physically occupying space that the others would occupy or by excreting substances that are toxic to the others. In a healthy gut, no one part of this miasma of organisms dominates. Everything is kept in balance and disease is prevented. We’ve learned a lot about what bacteria do for humans. In our intestines, they aid in digestion, stimulate parts of our immune system, and alter our mood. Yeast (a fungus) has even been found to drive our food cravings. 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 the relationship. For microorganisms - human skin, the intestine, nose, and throat are a warm and (mostly) moist environment where they can thrive, sustained by a ready supply of nutrients. And we benefit from their presence.

We don’t know as much about why the fungi and viruses are there but a brilliant example of mutualism is how fungi work in the landscape, serving trees. This will give you a framework for thinking about them. Did you know that fungi create networks between the roots of same-species trees? These networks literally connect the trees together, allowing them to transfer nutrients among themselves. The trees will feed kin that are weak or sick, so they heal. "Mother" trees will send nutrients to their offspring. Trees chopped down hundreds of years ago have been kept alive by their kin - maybe because that tree was at the center of the network before being chopped down and keeping that stump alive allows the nutrients to travel to trees that can't be reached any other way. Keeping tree-kin alive creates 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 tree collaboration. What’s in it for the fungi in this mutualistic relationship? Access to nutrients they can’t produce on their own.

One study found that fungi might be responsible for controlling inflammation in the gut. 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? It is thought that viruses in the gut might help train our immune system, preparing it for infections. We still don't know as much about other roles viruses play but give that time too. Or, just trust that there is some sort of order and reasoning for their existence. Granted, it’s cool when we understand the details too.


2/15/24 Add. A healthy microbiome has also been linked to our ability to remineralize our teeth, preventing tooth decay. If caught early enough, microorganisms in the saliva can help move minerals back into cavities and reverse them.

Another benefit of a healthy microbiome is that it keeps foreign, potentially toxic microorganisms from setting up shop in our bodies - there is no room for them. Trouble happens if one group of microorganisms is killed off, like when we take antibiotics, eat a lot of food with preservatives, or for a host of other reasons listed below. Antibiotics and preservatives kill bacteria, leaving gaps in the microbiome landscape. Those gaps are quickly filled by other multiplying microorganisms, throwing off the balance, and allowing one group to proliferate. You might start with a bacterial infection but after taking antibiotics, you can end up with a yeast infection or an infection from a different bacteria that wasn’t killed by the antibiotic. Keeping a balance of all the “good” and “bad” bacteria, fungi and viruses, etc. is important to our health but how do we accomplish that? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Add fermented food to your diet daily. These foods contain live microorganisms. Often, probiotics found in capsules are dead - that won't help you. Or even better, add fermented foods a few times a day. Fermented foods contain “probiotics” - a mix of healthy bacteria, and fungi. This 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. It was a normal part of our diet. Preservatives and refrigeration have eliminated the need for fermentation. Add it back into your diet. *** 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, which is great if it’s old milk. However, fresh raw milk and raw milk products from an organic farmer are loaded with good bacteria/probiotics. 2/15/24 Add: A suggested combo of 1/2 cup kefir, 1/2 cup kombucha and 1 tablespoon of sauerkraut is a good starting point. 2/15/24 Add: A recent article in the National Geographic, discussed a study that examined Probiotic pills and found that they were mostly filled with dead microorganisms. That's why I advocate fermented food. In food, they're alive and can start impacting your microbiome immediately.

  2. Avoid processed foods. Cook at home with fresh ingredients more often. Processed foods not only contain fewer nutrients, and they’re loaded with preservatives. Preservatives are designed to kill the microorganisms that spoil food. They also kill 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 also eat. There is evidence that the combination of these two modifications is particularly toxic and damaging to our gut microbiome.

  4. Add more Fruit, Vegetables, Whole Grains, Nuts and Seeds to your diet. The bacteria and yeast in your gut consume fiber. Feed them. 2/15/24 Add: Each plant has different types of fiber and different microorganisms on them - diversify the foods you eat for a diverse microbiome and to feed the microbes a diverse diet. A good rule of thumb is to try to eat 30 different fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds per week.

  5. Cut back on your consumption of processed sugar. It is digested so quickly that your microbiome doesn't have a chance to consume any of it, so the microbiome doesn’t have enough energy to stay alive. Without a regular food source, the microorganisms will resort to consuming your stomach lining. Additionally, yeast loves sugar and will proliferate, disrupting the balance. Add complex sugars like fruit, dark chocolate (just a little because we now know dark chocolate often is high in lead and cadmium), coconut flour, honey, etc. ***When I mentioned food cravings above, this is what I was thinking about. Some research suggests that when there's a lot of yeast in your gut, the yeast signals your brain to eat more sugar. Seriously. A microorganism is dictating your behavior. ***Watch this video to see how another fungus, cordyceps, dictates the behavior of infected insects.

  6. Modify your alcohol intake. Alcohol kills bacteria. Think about the movies that showed field surgeons in the Civil War. How did they clean a wound? - They poured alcohol over it, which disinfected/killed all the microorganisms.

  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 bacteria, etc on the surface, not that which is embedded in the skin, an important part of your microbiome. ***Spiral Herbal Remedies' Gone Viral tincture is an alternative. The plants it contains have been found to kill Strep and Staph along with the flu virus without killing your "good" bacteria. Gone Viral is meant to be taken early in an infection before the virus or bacteria have spread. It usually works in a few doses and then you stop taking it.

  8. Try to quit smoking. Aside from damaging your lungs, it kills your microbiome. ***Think about trying Spiral Herbal Remedies' Chill Your Bones smoking blend to wean yourself off of tobacco and weed, which create cravings and dependency. The smoking blend relaxes you while you're decreasing the amount of tobacco or weed you consume.

  9. Emotional stress, a lack of exercise, and poor sleeping habits also have a destructive impact on your microbiome. This links to alcohol consumption too. The newest research has shown that alcohol interferes with our sleep quality. ***Spiral Herbal Remedies' Organic, lab-tested CBD oil. CBD binds with receptors on the Nervous System, calming it. It also contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties. ***Check out my blog post for other ways to control stress and sleep better.

  10. Get dirty. Much of our microbiome used to be accumulated from the environment. We've become a very sanitary culture and germophobic. Get out into the woods at least weekly. Touch the trees, run your hand in a waterfall, sit on the ground, and breathe the outdoor air (yes they're in the air). Dig in the soil - having a garden is a great way to bring microorganisms into your body. Give the veggies a light wash and eat them right away. They don't need to be soaked and sterilized. When you do that you lose diversity and diversity is key. 2/15/24 Add: Research has shown that digging in the soil/gardening decreases depression, and anxiety, and elevates feelings of life satisfaction, quality of life, a sense of community, psychological well-being, mood, and cognitive function.

  11. Switch to organic, preservative-free skin products. There is a connection between your gut microbiome health and your skin microbiome health and vice versa. 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' skin products were designed for that reason. Try switching out one product a month. Or invest and switch all at once. Several of my clients have done this.

I hope you find this blog post helpful. Feel free to write in the comments with questions or feedback. Of course, if I've missed something, I'd love to hear about that as well. My Herbalism shop is Social Practice. I am becoming the Healer, Wise Woman, Shaman, Witch. Don't worry, "Witch" refers to a word used in the Middle Ages to kill millions of Female Herbalists. These peasant women were organizing against wealthy landlords who claimed common land for their cattle and sheep. The landlords and church instituted a law that made it illegal for these women to heal their community because their knowledge didn't come from the church, it came from the landscape and their pre-Christian pagan beliefs. The women were said to be dealing with the devil and were burned alive. Read Witches, Midwives, and Nurses for an eye-opener. Check out the rest of my website for some of my recent projects. Becoming an herbalist is an act of resistance, a political statement, and a powerful feminist move. I descend from Irish healers who practiced in the Middle Ages. I am reclaiming my ancestral knowledge. All rights reserved. @Copyright Donna Cleary


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