For those of you that have been following my writing for some years you may know that I’m obsessed with the human microbiome. Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently you will probably have heard how important your gut is in relation to your overall health. As 80% of your immune system is in your microbiome, your body’s bacteria can help with nearly every process from digesting food to weight loss. The human microbiome may have a role in auto-immune diseases like diabetes rheumatoid arthritis, MS and fibromyalgia. A poor mix of microbes in the gut may also aggravate such conditions as obesity. Since some of the microbes in the human body can modify the production of neurotransmitters known to occur in the brain, it may also relieve schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and other neurochecmical imbalances. Pretty amazing no?

So the human micro….what? Ok so the human microbiome is housed in your gut and other areas of your body e.g. mouth, nose and genitals. You will know that one of the biggest mysteries in studies of diet and exercise is how people differ on the same treatment with such differing outcomes. Some people drop weight by doing relatively little, improve circulating triglycerides, total cholesterol and biomarkers of inflammation, and some struggle. Is our DNA to blame? Partly yes, but we generally share more than 99% genetic similarity with other people. The huge driver in the difference of outcomes, particularly with weight gain and loss, might be driven by the bacteria in our gut which can be more than 90% different between varying people.

In addition to the genomes (genetic material) we inherit from our parents we all have trillions of microbes each with their own genomes. Thanks to research like the Human Microbiome Project our understanding of microbial bodies has been revolutionised. Throughout our lives our microbes can change depending on diet, medications, hygiene and even how we entered the world.

“ We’ve had this perception of microbes as germs and pathogens as disease bearing organisms” says Lita Proctor of the Human Microbiome Project. “Much of the scientific literature for decades and decades has been completely focused on pathogens and that has also framed our point of view about microbes. But it has also become clear that the vast majority of microbes we come in contact with on a daily basis are not pathogenic, they are either benign and could not care less that there is a human nearby or actually provide benefit”

We know that C sections versus vaginal births impact on the initial level of microbes we receive and further during breast feeding vs. formula. We also know that globally more traditional societies have vastly different microbes than those in the westernised populations and that diet can play a role in this.

Changes in the microbiome have been linked to obesity, inflammatory bowel disorders (IBD) allergies, and asthmas. A study in Science found that differences in the microbiome might help explain instances in which one individual in a pair of twins is obese while the other is not. Microbiome samples taken from obese twins and delivered to mice led to the animals gaining weight in a way the microbiome from their leaner siblings did not.

The Western microbiome has changed dramatically in the last 100 years and not for the better. The recent microbiome changes might explain in some cases the rise of certain types of western disease. David Siskin a paediatrician and gastroenterologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital says

“If you look at a lot of the disease issues of the 20th and 21st century a lot of them have to do with nutrition and autoimmune processes“.

He attributes arthritis, gum disease, obesity and cardiovascular disease on this list. His primary interest is IBD, Crohns, ulcerative colitis, and their relating symptoms. IBD is usually considered an autoimmune process attacking the GI tract and other organs but humans have been around for millennia and IBD is a relatively new disorder noticed by doctors about 50 years ago. Since then the incidences have risen. In the New England Journal of Medicine 2014, research published a report of a donor faeces that can be a miracle cure for some patients with c. difficile – faecal transplants may well have a place in overcoming some disease states in the future.

So where does this leave us?

Well I’ve been conducting stool tests, analysing gut bacteria for nearly 20 years and it’s the most fascinating subject. So many of my patients with inflammatory disorders have gut bacteria issues: These include IBD, IBS, RA etc. I get very excited when I see what’s going on in their microbiome, pseudomonas, klebsiella, enterobacter, and other such bacteria’s as lactobacillus and bifidus. Most of my patients are fascinated by this vast hidden landscape that never knew existed.

Today an unbalanced microbiome is common. Years of following diets high in processed foods, sugar, excess antibiotics and chronic stress have impaired our gut health. There has also been an increase in C sections and formula feeding which has impacted on the gut health in children. (This is no way saying that the mother is at fault, these are often necessary procedures, however education needs to be put into place and measures taken to overcome a potential low gut flora start in life).

The good news is you can change your gut microbiome for the better. As the average bacterium lifespan is about 20 minutes you have plenty of time to turn things around. There are a host of factors that deplete the gut flora – your environment, the amount of exercise you take, sleep, stress and diet, the last being the most important.

Your gut responds to what you feed it. Feed it junk and it wont flourish. Remove sugar, processed foods and refined carbohydrates. Eat carbohydrates from vegetables and low sugar fruit, loads of dark green leafy vegetables, radishes, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, asparagus, carrots garlic, onions and turmeric. Include fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, defer and yoghurt (all probiotics).

We spend so much time indoors in front of our laptops protecting ourselves from the elements and other so called dangers. This has changed the environment in the home and office. Let the air in, let your children play in the mud and dirt. Get your hands dirty in the soil if you are a gardener.

Easier said than done but never underestimate the amount of stress can have on your gut. I’m not talking obvious gut spasms here I‘m talking high levels of cortisol over long periods of time effecting the micro biome. Try and get some kind of daily stress reduction regime going as part of your routine.

This is more tricky than its sounds, as what is high quality and what actually works? Firstly don’t buy them from a supermarket. Even if its pricey it might not work. Get expert advice as this in the one supplement that people self prescribe and get totally wrong. Probiotics start as low as 1 billion and go to 450 billion so you need to know what you are doing.

Save them for the life threatening times you might need them or where there is an active bacterial infection. Otherwise avoid them.

If you would like further information on stool testing for gut flora, for IBD, IBS, RA or any other condition or any other point raised in this article, please contact Kate on 01323 737814/310532.