Within your body are a multitude of organisms that are not your cells. By some recent estimates, we are about 1 to 1 in terms of the number of cells and number of other microbes inhabiting our human body. From a population perspective, what that means is that half of you is a microbe colony.
Most of these little organisms live inside your digestive tract, specifically your small and large intestine, and are responsible for a variety of key functions from digestion to regulating the immune system and even regulating your mood through neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and melatonin.
There is a growing body of research that links specific types of bacteria to particular health conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and other inflammatory or chronic diseases. The impact of these little critters on your health is far and wide, and another important area is your mental health. With a majority of the serotonin being produced in the gut, and a growing connection being shown by research between the gut and the brain via the Vagus nerve, an unhealthy microbiome can be strongly correlated with depression, anxiety and other traditionally psychological concerns.
A Life Lesson from an Antibiotic
I remember having to take an antibiotic named Cipro once for a fairly minor condition. I didn’t think to research it at the time and the prescribing doctor was at a high-traffic urgent care clinic who could care less about my health. Cipro, or ciprofloxacin, is in a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. This particular class of drug is very strong and should not be used unless absolutely necessary as it can create severe side effects.
In my case, within a day of taking my first dose I began experiencing massive depression, suicidal thoughts and a total lack of motivation. It was pretty crazy, but it was a testament to the impact of the gut flora on our mood and sense of mental well-being. Anytime someone has depression or anxiety, my first instinct (gut instinct?) is to examine the health of their microbiome. Of course the mind matters too, but you must treat both. One is the hardware the other is the software. The impact of a healthy digestive terrain that is diverse, not inflamed and functioning properly cannot be understated in connection to many things - especially mental health.
Thankfully, today we have created many tools to ensure having a healthy gut microbiome is possible regardless of your situation. Eating fermented foods with beneficial bacteria like yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut are good habits to incorporate into your diet for optimal health and one of the first places to start. Including prebiotic foods like resistant starch, plants polyphenols or a prebiotic fiber supplement, will help to keep your bacteria well fed and healthy. Avoiding things that destroy your gut flora like highly processed foods, excessive alcohol, low-quality meat, regular antibiotic intake
and artificial sweeteners are also very important.
Any time I have to take a round of antibiotics, I always do a follow-up week of high probiotic supplementation to “blitz” (like this one) my body with extra critters and rebuild what was damaged.
The Importance of Testing
Finally, keeping tabs on the population through regular comprehensive stool tests and targeted supplementation will ensure that nothing goes out of balance for too long. Remember that specific bacteria relate to specific functions and effects in the body, so having an imbalance can lead to problems with your weight, mood, energy levels or even chronic diseases if left unchecked. What you eat on a regular basis also changes the landscape of this diverse colony, so regular testing will help you spot any sub-populations that may need support in order to have a comprehensive colony.
As an example, when I stopped eating dairy I often saw certain Lactobacillus strains coming out very low on my stool tests. This is an easy fix, but it’s important to know because they each have a unique piece of the puzzle to contribute to your health. It is such a dynamic system and truly incredible, with more and more research citing the
importance of this balance being the key in nearly every aspect of health.
If you are on a quest to align your body, and half of that population are microbes, then taking care of your gut and making sure it is in pristine working order is a huge part of the job. Although we aren't getting too specific in this short article, my general recommendations are the following:
Try to eat fermented foods regularly
Avoid things that inflame your gut, kill off good bacteria or feed the bad actors (excessive sugar feeds Candida yeast, for example, and artificial sweeteners kill off good bacteria)
Take a comprehensive probiotic supplement (like this one) regularly
Consume prebiotic foods like resistant starch or inulin
Test yourself regularly so you can catch imbalances and adjust accordingly
Get Down and Dirty
On another note, an intriguing and relatively "new" area of study for probiotics is that of soil-based probiotics, or SBO (soil-based organisms). Although it's important to note that these soil-based organisms have been around throughout our existence over the last several thousand years because our ancestors consumed them through eating dirt (no such thing as "triple washed spinach" in ancient times) and also by being in contact with the ground much more.
There are many advantages to using soil-based probiotics that are attractive, and they can be a powerful tool in your quest to recover from stubborn digestive issues. Because they exist in spores, they can survive the harsh acidic environment of the stomach and enter the large intestine, where they can colonize safely and aid in several useful immune, metabolic and digestive processes.
They also do not compete with your existing bacteria, but in fact help to support them in their activities. Many common probiotics contain strains that, although beneficial, can have a hard time colonizing deeper parts of your colon for these reasons. If you have bacterial overgrowth, like SIBO, using these types of probiotics (even though they are generally beneficial) may make the situation worse because they will colonize the small instestine and lead to overgrowth. This is why soil-based probiotics may be a powerful intervention, and generally the strains of interest are of the Bacillus type, for example: Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus coagulans, Bacillus clausii and a few others.
For further information on these interesting interventions, refer to the last two citations in the references below.