Monday, August 4, 2014

Human Microbiome Project

Last Thursday I stumbled upon and article in the Star Tribune, our local news paper here in Minnesota, that uncovered some new facts about how our natural stomach flora might be playing a big part in our overall health.

I have always been extremely interested in microbiology and living in a household where holistic health in our everyday lives we have always talked about good bacteria and healthy gut flora. When infectious disease was the leading cause of death, bacteria became the enemy. Before antibiotics we can see that certain colonies of bacteria had enough power to wipe out entire populations because our bodies are great incubators. Certain bacteria can spread quickly and kill the bacteria already present in the body that is there to help protect you from foreign invaders. Once this happens the bacteria that is growing starts to take over and can inevitably start to shutdown our body systems.

Over the years we have introduced certain antibiotics to help keep these fast growing invaders from growing in the body by creating an environment that seems to be deadly for these microbials. But by doing this we tend to kill off our natural defense system again just like the invading bacteria has done and the results can sometimes be almost as damaging. It seems that the most important part of keeping our bodies in check is to keep our natural flora healthy and strong so that it has enough defenses to keep foreign substances from attacking our body. This is where our good bacteria and microbiota start to play a crucial part .

What is Gut Flora?

Gut flora consists of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. Gut microorganisms benefit the host by gleaning the energy from the fermentation of undigested carbohydrates and the subsequent absorption of short-chain fatty acids. In the human body microbial cells outnumber human cells ten to one. Bacteria make up most of the flora in the colon but also fungi, protozoa, archea and candida make up part of the gut flora as well. Though people can survive without flora, the microorganisms perform many useful functions, such as fermenting unused energy, training the immune system, preventing growth of harmful bacteria, regulating the digestive system, helping the production of biotin and vitamin K from its other forms, and producing hormones to direct the host to store fat.

Scientists have uncovered most of the micro-flora found in the gut but still have to figure out how each individual organism works with our bodies. In 2008 The National Institutes of Health funded a project to map the human microbiome. Much like the Human Genome Project, they are on a quest to discover as much as the can about the microorganisms found in our bodies. The advances in genetic sequencing has allowed researchers to isolate individual microorganisms so that they can eventually tell what that certain organism does for our bodies.

The mutualistic relationship between our flora and our bodies overall health is pretty amazing. Not only does the flora help boost your immune system and shield you from infection, it has been shown that they may also effect your mental stability. The size and complexity of the human brain is what separates us from other animals. However, for several hundred years animals didn't have brains the gut was the most complex of body organs. The stomach determined when the organism was hungry- it decided what was food and what was not, it found the food and digested it. As evolution progressed, the brain developed to control behavior and interactions with the environment. As we evolved the stomach still contributes information to not only the body but also the brain. It has been shown but not proven that a large percentage of individuals with certain gastrointestinal illness also suffer psychiatric disorders. The Human Microbiome Project is trying to find the link between the psyche and the stomach. I have had a lot of stomach problems over the years and I have been working diligently to rid myself of these issues. I can tell you when I am going through bouts of stomach issues, I know that my stress level increases immensely. It sometimes becomes almost impossible to concentrate and after a few days of this I am mentally exhausted.

The ideal balance of beneficial to pathogenic bacteria in your gut is about 85 percent good bacteria and 15 percent bad. Maintaining this ideal ratio is what its all about when you are talking about optimizing your gut health.

Coming from a girl with a lot of gut issues I know that there are some really great ways to keep your gut happy and healthy.

Keeping your gut Healthy

1. Trust your body

First things first, make sure that you are listening to your gut. Danielle has mentioned to me a few times that over the past couple years she has stopped dieting and started "listening to her gut". She says that there are just some foods that tend to not agree with her stomach. She said chicken in particular has made her feel awful after eating- she decided to eliminate chicken from her diet. She knows that if she is feeling icky after eating that it isn't just her digestive system that is being effected she also knows that there is other things in her body that are going to have to work harder to help eliminate that food item from her system. I find the whole theory of listening to your body fascinating. Danielle is going to give us a little more incite into this concept later this week.

2. Water

If you throw back a ton of fiber and don't add enough water you are destined for a traffic jam. Water is an essential part of our digestion and making sure you are ingesting enough on a daily basis will help keep your digestive tract moving.

3. Probiotics

Good flora and fauna are essential. Although sometimes just ingesting probiotics doesn't solve the problem because introducing new flora can sometimes take a while to populate the system since there are so many other microorganism colonies present in the digestive tract. But if you continue to take them they do help. Probiotics can be found in capsule form at the grocery store but they can also be found in foods. Fermented foods are where to look first. Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of lactofermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid. This good bacteria that is helping break down those bonds are the probiotics that are found naturally in those foods. Some of the foods high in these natural probiotics are kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Probiotics have shown to help improve bowel health, aid digestion and improve immunity.

4. Fiber

Food that comes in a package or is in anyway processed is essentially predigested. Real whole foods like vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts literally give your gut something to work with and keep your gut awake and functioning.

6. Move

Making sure you are moving is one way to keep the gut moving.  A sedentary lifestyle can slow digestion, if we are constantly moving our bodies it helps move around all the things inside of our stomach and helps it flow through our systems.

Last but not least make sure to relax. I know that sounds a bit contradictory... keep moving but relax. Anxiety can play a major role in your overall health including your digestion. Keeping your body relaxed will help with lowering acid production which if not under control can actually kill some of that good bacteria.

There are a lot of other ways to help heal your stomach but beginning with simply listening to your body and paying attention to your digestion can ultimately steer you in the right direction. Later this week we will have an interview with the minds behind Prohibition Kombucha. They will have some great insight into the world of fermented beverages. Danielle will also be giving us a better understanding of what it is like living by listening to your body. I really can't wait to see what she has to say.

Have a wonderful week!


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