What does it take to be healthy? If you ask a dozen people on the street this question, the majority of the ones you ask will probably say that adequate physical activity, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep are the keys to achieving good health. Some may also mention that it’s important to prioritize stress management, spend time in nature, and get adequate sun exposure. Few, if any, of the people you meet will probably say anything about microbes.
This is not surprising, because as a society, we’ve been taught that it’s primarily the human part of our body that is important in the context of health and disease, not the microbial part. Over the past decade, the number of news stories covering topics related to the human microbiome has increased at a progressive pace, but there’s still a long way to go before the average Joe gives his microbiome the attention it deserves.
Some people are not even aware of the fact that their bodies are home to a teeming ecosystem of bacteria. And even those who are tend to underestimate the importance of the microbiome in health and disease.
A healthy diet will only get you so far
I think few will disagree that all of the lifestyle factors that were mentioned in the beginning of the article are important in the context of health and disease. In order to be healthy, we need to exercise, get enough sleep, and eat a prudent diet. We should also spend as much time as we can in nature, take steps to manage our stress levels, and get some sunlight on our skin, among other things.
Adhering to these healthy lifestyle practises is not always enough though. You can eat a perfect, non-processed diet, spend hours at the gym every week, and sleep for eight straight hours every night, it’s not going to provide you with a healthy body and mind if you harbor an unhealthy microbiota. If your microbiota is in good shape, however, you will experience the full benefits of the aforementioned activities and probably feel pretty great.
There’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of people these days are unhealthy not because there’s anything wrong with their diet or exercise program, but rather because there’s something wrong with their microbiome. Since most doctors, nutritionists, and other health practitioners know little or nothing about the microbiome, the majority of these sick individuals are not made aware of the fact that fixing their microbiota may be the key to fixing their health problems. They may adopt the healthiest diet in the world, but still not get better, because their microbiota is in a compromised state.
An unhealthy diet will always produce an unhealthy microbiota, but that doesn’t mean that a healthy diet will always produce a healthy microbiota. If you already harbor a diverse mix of gut microbes and your gut microbiota is in pretty good shape, simply adhering to a prudent, species-appropriate diet may be suffient to make you healthy; however, if you harbor a degraded, dysfunctional microbiota, adopting a good diet is not going to be enough; you also need to take steps to repair your microbiome.
All free-living macroscopic organisms (e.g., humans) carry a microbiome. The human microbiome acts as an extension of the human genome, in the sense that it provides important genetic capabilities that the human host lacks. When the microbiome is in bad shape, the human host is in bad shape.
The microbiota helps regulate our immune system, breaks down some of the food we eat, impacts our reproductive and sexual function, and produce a long list of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other compounds that affect various organs in our body. Moreover, the microbiota can exert control over our behavior and thoughts, and has been implicated in a long list of chronic health disorders, including mental conditions such as autism, ADHD, and depression.
Why it can be difficult to repair a damaged microbiota
Eating healthy, exercising, and sleeping are easy tasks when compared to the job of repairing a damaged microbiota. In the upper part of your gastrointestinal system, more specifically in your stomach, an acidic shield is blocking microbes from travelling down into the lower parts of your gut. Not all of the microbes you ingest are unable to pass through this acidic barrier, but many are.
The gastric acid is important, in the sense that it destroys potentially harmful microbes that may otherwise be allowed to cause havoc in your body. However, in doing so, it also wipes out many bacteria that have the potential to enhance your health. This is one of the reasons why a lot of people find it difficult to diversify their microbiome.
It takes time and persistence to boost the diversity of the gut microbiota, unless you take a microbiota pill that comes in an acid resistant capsule or perform a fecal microbiota transplant – a procedure in which bacteria are infused directly into the lower parts of the gut.
In order to achieve good health, it’s not enough to lead a healthy lifestyle and eat a species-appropriate diet, you also need a well-functioning community of microbes in your gut.
- A healthy diet plus a healthy microbiota equals good health.
- A healthy diet plus an unhealthy microbiota equals disease.
- An unhealthy diet plus an unhealthy microbiota equals disease.
- It’s impossible to eat an unhealthy diet and have a healthy microbiota, because a bad diet will select for a microbiota that is mismatched with the human genome.
Other factors, such as physical activity, sleep, sun exposure, and genetics, are obviously also important determinants of human health, but they may not be as important as diet and microbiota.