I’m going to come out and admit it right now. I’m kind of obsessed with bacteria. I know, I know, that sounds appalling. I mean, bacteria are the bad guys, right? They’re what we want gone; they make nasty infections, and cause misery and disease! The discovery of antibiotics was what brought medicine into the 21st century; being able to kill those bad guys has saved millions of lives, how could I love them?
Well, as with any story, there are two sides. Yes, there are many potentially harmful bacteria, and I will be the first to say I am eternally grateful for the advent and judicious use of antibiotics. However, there are a wealth of bacteria that we now know are required for us to be the best we can be and to run optimally. We as humans did not evolve in an asceptic environment. Our physiology evolved alongside, and with, millions of other organisms. And the plain truth is that just as our planet is an ecosystem that requires all parts to be working well for the whole to work optimally, so it is with our own bodies. And while the thought of our bodies teeming with microorganisms may give many of you the heeby-jeebies, without these symbiotic helpers, our health is severely compromised.
Here’s just a few ways in which our microflora help us run optimally:
- Immune Balance. There has been a huge rise in what is called “atopic disease” in the last 50 years. These are illnesses such as asthma, eczema, and allergies. The symptoms associated with these disorders arise from an immune system that is hyper reactive, that is it is over reacting to a perceived threat and pumping out loads of inflammatory chemicals into our system, causing the classic symptoms of atopy: itching, watery nose, hives, airway constriction, etc.
We know now that without the proper bacteria in our intestines, the T-cells of our immune system are not able to differentiate properly and instead become predominantly inflammatory. This causes inflammation to increase throughout our bodies.
- The Gut-Brain connection. Recent animal studies are confirming what has long been known clinically: when there is dysfunction in the GI, there is dysfunction in the brain. Rats given high doses of probiotics were found to produce less cortisol (our stress hormone) than control groups.
- Nutrient absorption. The correct bacteria in our GI tract (from the mouth all the way to the rump) allows us to properly digest and absorb the needed nutrients from our food. These same bacteria also allow us to tolerate a wide variety of foods and not become intolerant to them. Most food intolerances can be traced back to an imbalanced microflora.
So how can you ensure your ecosystem is as healthy as possible? A few easy tips:
- Take a high quality, high potency probiotic for 3 months. I recommend 40-60 billion CFU’s a day (CFU stands for “colony forming unit”, a fancy marketing term for bacteria). Research is showing the most positive outcomes on high potencies of probiotics. Three months provides a long enough time span to ensure proper colonization.
- After three months, take a maintenance dose of 5 billion cfu a day. Or better yet, incorporate naturally fermented foods into your daily diet such as yogurt, kiefer, pickles, sauerkraut, and kim-chee.
- Eat a whole foods diet made of sustainably sourced meats and fish, organic dairy and eggs, and heaps of organic veggies and fruits and nuts. This is the type of diet our bodies adapted to and evolved with over time, and the type of diet our bacteria thrives on.
- Manage stress. Chronically high cortisol levels kills off the bacteria in our bodies. While eliminating stress is neither optimal nor possible, help your body by maintaining a regular exercise program and getting enough sleep.
Making our bodies a friendly environment for bacteria sounds counterintuitive to what the MO of the last sixty plus years of medical advice has been. But that is only because we’ve been only paying attention to the bad guys and mischief makers of the bacteria world. It’s as if someone said, “we know criminals are dangerous, so because they are humans, we advise staying away from all humans, and in fact, eliminating them all whenever possible.” That’s clearly nonsense. We know to stay away from places and situations dangerous people may be, and to instead surround ourselves with people we love and who boost us up and give us needed relationship. It’s no different with bacteria. We know not to drink the dirty water, to wash our hands before eating, to cover our mouths when we cough. Now we just have to start incorporating daily actions to let the good guys thrive, too! Go forth and multiply!
Dr. Juniper Martin is a board certified Naturopathic Physician practicing at Willow Tree Wellness Clinic in Portland and Westside Family Practice in Tigard, Oregon. She uses an integrated approach, combining her study of complementary treatments such as herbal medicine, supplements and nutrition with her training in western diagnostics, pharmacology, and laboratory interpretation. Call 503-281-0030 to schedule an appointment and experience thorough holistic health care with naturopathic medicine.