If you haven’t heard the word “microbiome”, this post is going to be the most important thing you read in a long time.
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I am working on creating an enterprise (Food Clinic) that will specialize on reversing/managing chronic diseases using food as the 1st medicine. Of all the knowledge we are going to use in our practice, the most fascinating and the strangest thing is the knowledge of the friendly micro-organisms that live within, and on, us. These little guys are collectively called our microbiome.
First, the fascinating bits:
- The number of micro-organism cells we food and shelter is 10 times more than our own cells.
- These microbes take active part in running our bodies. They even train our immune system and switch on and off our genes.
- After our stomach and small intestine extract energy and nutrition from the food we eat, the microbes digest the leftovers in the large intestine, producing even more energy and nutrients for us.
- The large intestine is not just a waste-bin like we were told in our schools.
What’s in it for you?
- If you eat the food that is eaten by the good microbes in your gut, all good things happen to you. When you avoid feeding the good microbes, they die out and the gut gets crowded by the bad microbes. Then the hell breaks loose.
- More precisely, the gut lining breaks loose and lets undesirable things from inside of the gut (e.g. toxic chemicals, food fragments, pathogens) to escape into the blood stream.
- When that happens,
- The toxins in the blood cause inflammation all over the body
- The immune system over-reacts to the inflammation
- When the immune system overacts, you get auto-immune diseases like
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Eczema and psoriasis
- Irritable Bowl Syndrome
- Crohn’s Disease
- Insulin Resistance
- Multiple Sclerosis
- And more
- Till date, there are no reliable cures for any of these diseases.
- But now, it is beginning to look like all these autoimmune diseases can be reversed by re-balancing the gut microbiome!
- How come? If you remember, there is mounting evidence that most auto-immune diseases start with imbalance in the microbiome.
- There are exceptions. Certain type of autoimmune diseases damage the body irreversibly. They don’t get better by re-balaning gut microbiome. Examples are Type-1 diabetes and autism.
How do you re-balance the microbiome?
There are five simple things you can do:
- Eat right: Eat stuff that the your good bacteria likes (fiber, sulfur, fermented food, etc.). These are also called prebiotics. Also, avoid sugar, simple carbohydrates, red meat and high fat diet (personally, I am not convinced about avoiding high-fat).
- Probiotics: Only if it is industrial strength and only if you take it for several months or years. Which, to the best of my knowledge, are not available in India.
- Medicines on the negative list: Unless your life depends on it, avoid antibiotics, long exposure to acid reducing medication, steroidal medication and toxin filled cosmetics. When you use these medication on kids, the effect is even more pronounced.
- Stay dirty: Be less clean. Play in the dirt. Don’t use anti-bacterial wipes. Bath less often (ahem). Don’t use mouth wash (ahem, ahem). Don’t use alcohol based perfumes (ahemn)
- Fecal Material Transplant (FMT): This is a stylish way of saying that the excretion of a healthy human being is pushed into the rectum of someone with poor gut microbiome. The material is held within the abdomen of the patient for an hour or so, and then pushed out. The process transfers microbiome of the healthy individuals to the unhealthy one.
Does it work?
Yes! BIG YES!!
Anecdotes from clinics around the world have it that patients with multiple sclerosis and chronic fatigue syndrome are getting better, even going into complete remission, after a few sessions of FMT!
There is research evidence, though with a small sample size, that FMT from lean individuals to individuals with insulin resistance makes the later become insulin sensitive! Let me translate it for you:
- FMT can reverse diabetes
- Diabetes is probably a disease of the gut
Reversing insulin resistance is a big deal because IR often leads to heart disease and several cancers.
For other diseases like C. Diff. (Clostridium Defficile) bacterial infection, IBD, Crohn’s, etc., balancing the gut flora, with or without FMT, is the only known possibility of a cure. 85% of C. Diff. infection gets cured within hours after an FMT. 95% cases are cured after just to FMT sessions. Other autoimmune disseases don’t have such fantastic success rate. But still, they are impressive.
Incidence of every one of the autoimmune diseases I listed above started to climb around 1950. One number that has been etched in my mind is this: During 1940’s, 1 out of 10,000 American kids was diagnosed to be autistic (we are beginning to suspect that autism is an autoimmune disease). In 2010, the number was 1:68.
Many autoimmune diseases started skyrocketing starting 1950s to 1980s.
Several things happened around in the period between 1950 to 1980. They include introduction of certain pesticides to beginning of the usage of high fructose corn syrup.
One thing that seem to play a role in all autoimmune diseases is this: Antibiotics were introduced in 1944 and their usage exploded from the 50’s. This also includes usage of antibiotics on farm animals. Farmers discovered that when low dose antibiotic was administered to animals every day, they gained significantly more weight. With that, antibiotics were everywhere.
When humans use antibiotics for a long period of time, or if they are exposed to antibiotic while they were still infants/toddlers, their microbiome gets substantially damaged. If they are also on some other medication that can disturb the microbiome (e.g. acid blockers, steroidal medications), things get worse. If this person is a picky eater who hates their veggies, or lives in a super-sterile environment that is an antithesis to microbiome diversity, God save them!
Looking in the wrong places
Whatever I’ve told you till now is summarized in the pyramid below:
Many of your chronic diseases start with bad microbiome (the technical term for this is “dysbiosis”). Unfortunately, instead of paying attention to the bottom of the pyramid and working on the root cause, we are busy treating the bio-markers (for example, cholesterol and blood sugar numbers). In medical field, it is called “treating the numbers”.
No wonder we have no medication to permanently fix any of the chronic/life-style diseases!
When germ theory was understood, it demystified all the infectious diseases. Germ theory eventually brought us antibiotics, which put an end to infectious diseases. Till then, infectious diseases were periodically wiping out a substantial chunk of of human populations.
Take Home 1: Autoimmune diseases, lifestyle diseases and many mental disorders that plague us today are loosely called the 21st century diseases. We are beginning to understand that many of them are just one disease: Dysbiosis. With more understanding, treating the 21st century diseases is going to become surprisingly simple and elegant.
Take Home 2: Enriching your gut microbiome is a simple, but life-time, endeavor. If you put a little efforts to understand it, you can start enriching your microbiome today!
Some interesting books on microbiome
- 10% Human (this is an intense book; but it’ll give you a nice foundation)
- The Microbiome Solution (for the practical person, with oodles of how-to instructions)
- Eat Dirt (five types of leaky gut and treatment for each one of them)
- Brain Maker (effect of gut microbiome on the brain)
Localizing all this knowledge
These books constantly tell you to eat local. There are three reason for this:
- Local food is fresh. Processed food is nutrition depleted, sterile and destroys gut microbiome diversity. Though we don’t eat much of processed food in India, if we can eat food within few hours of farming, it brings us additional nutrition.
- Locally grown food, provided you live close to a place where your ancestors evolved, must have evolved along with you. So, it must be more friendly to your guts.
- For a similar reason, local microbes are thought to be better than microbes that are shipped from far away land.
So, if you want to tend to the balance of your microbiome, localizing the best practices of the West is extremely important. This includes charting one’s gut microbiome. At Food Clinic, we have started to nibble at this problem from the edges. Send us a mail if you want to be posted about the exciting developments that are going to come.
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