Your microbiome is your personal ecosystem of microbes that live in and on your body. Microbes are small organisms, e.g. bacteria and viruses, more commonly known as ‘germs’ or ‘bugs’. These microbes out-number our cells 10 to 1, and while most of us think of microbes as being bad, the vast majority of microbes within and around us are friendly or benign. Many of the microbes that share our body with us are vital to the function of body systems, and we could not survive without them. While most of them live in our gut, they inhabit every surface of our body that comes into contact with the outside world, such as our skin, throat, nose, lungs, bladder, vagina and so on.
A healthy balance of microbes in your body is very important to the healthy functioning of your immune system. Imbalances in our micro biome can contribute to many modern diseases involving inflammation and immune dysfunction such as allergies and automimmune disease. In a way, you could think of your microbiome as being part of your immune system, because it helps keep bad bugs under control. I think of these microbes as being a support team for our white blood cells.
Likewise, a lot of the microflora in your gut are vital to healthy gut functioning. Much like digestive enzymes, gut flora breaks down or digest parts of our food that we cannot digest ourselves. Sometimes they are converting nutrients from unusable into usable forms, or simply making them small enough for to transport across our intestinal lining from the gut into our blood so we can use these amazing nutrients in our body.
An incredible example of the way this works is the interaction between phytoestrogens and the microbes that live in your gut (also known as ‘gut flora’). A little back story first: Phytoestrogens are nutrients in plants that have a similar shape to the oestrogen we produce in our body (the word ‘phyto’ means plant). This means they can slot into the same cell receptor sites that real oestrogen slots into. This means that if your body isn’t producing enough of its own oestrogen, these plant oestrogens can slot into the receptor sites and switch on some (not all) of the helpful actions oestrogen has in our body. Plant oestrogens aren’t as strong as real oestrogen, but they are definitely better than nothing and can really help with the transition through menopause. Likewise, plant oestrogens can help in cases of oestrogen excess, by blocking some of the receptor sites so that our real oestrogen can’t log into the receptor sites, hence reducing the negative symptoms of oestrogen excess.
In other words, phytoestrogens (plant oestrogens) are balancing, but they can’t do their job unless we have the right microbes in our gut to break them down and transform them into the special little keys we need to unlock or block estrogenic action in the body. It’s our gut flora that makes all the difference between phytoestrogens being able to help or making no difference at all…. and this is just one example of many, many magical functions our gut flora can have.
A really big thing we need to be thinking about as we move forward medically, is our obsession with cleanliness, cleansing and our often aggressive approach to infection. So often, we are taking extreme approaches to hygiene that over-sterilise and unbalance the microbial worlds within and around us with things like antibiotics (or naturopathic equivalents such as colloidal silver and oregano oil), antiseptic hand washes, strong cleaning chemicals, chlorine in our water and so on. Obviously hygiene is very important and has made a massive difference to human health on the whole, but we have taken it too far, and the naturopathic tendency to over-emphasise often quite drastic cleansing or purging regimes is much the same.
We need balance in our lives. We need more contact with nature, with microbe-laden dirt, with fresh microbe-laden air, with animals and home grown foods. Everything these days is far too sterile and we are destroying the microbial biodiversity that sustains us. We need to exercise our immune systems, not baby them and suppress them with the excessive use of vaccines, stringent hygiene and antibiotics. We need to focus on nourishing the helpful microbe diversity within and around us rather than being rigidly obsessed with the so-called enemy and going on mass-rampage seek and destroy missions! The future of medicine will probably be more about using specific types of microbes to balance our microbiome and hence treat disease (and knowing how to feed these strains with diet and lifestyle choices), than about the unrestrained kill-everything approach we have been using in recent decades.
There is also a fascinating parallel between our inner and outer worlds, in terms of the way we tend to destroy rather than nurture. To truly survive as a species, we not only need to live in harmony with our inner community, we need to live harmoniously with our natural environment, contributing to the health of the ecosystem we inhabit, rather than systematically destroying it. I suspect that what humanity really needs in order to survive is a complete paradigm shift, where we cultivate an ‘us’ mentality that embraces the ecological whole, rather than the current divide-and-conquer approach that so often informs our approach to everything we do as a species.