By Dr. Mercola
Your body’s microbiome—colonies of various microbes that reside in your gut and elsewhere in and on your body—is as unique to you as your fingerprint.
It varies from person to person based on factors such as diet, lifestyle, health history, geographic location, and even ancestry. Your microbiome is in fact one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet.
In terms of ratios, your bacteria outnumber your body’s cells by 10 to 1, and viruses outnumber bacteria 10 to 1! So not only is your body the home of 100 trillion bacteria, you also house about one quadrillion viruses (bacteriophages).
All of these organisms perform a multitude of functions in key biological systems, and need to be properly balanced and cared for in order to maintain good health.
For example, your gut bacteria influence your immune responses, nervous system functioning, and play a role in the development of any number of diseases, including food allergies, as demonstrated by recent research.
Allergies are on the Rise Across the Western World
Food allergies affect some 15 million Americans, including one in 13 children. Disturbing statistics also point out that potentially deadly food allergies are on the rise. For example, between 1997 and 2011 alone, food allergies in children rose by 50 percent!
Inner-city kids are at greatest risk. In one study,1 10 percent of children raised in large cities developed a food allergy before the age of five. Twenty-nine percent developed food sensitivity. The most common food allergy was peanuts (6 percent), followed by eggs (4.3 percent), and pasteurized milk (2.7 percent).
City dwellers also have a heightened risk of asthma and other environmental allergies. Similarly, in Great Britain one in three people is allergic to something, be it pollen, dust mites, or food.2
Previous research has drawn parallels between the rise in allergies and increased antibiotic and antimicrobial use. According to British researchers,3 exposure to antibiotics early in life may increase your child’s risk of developing eczema by 40 percent.
Other scientists have clearly shown how genetically engineered foods and the use of the agricultural herbicide glyphosate destroys gut bacteria and promotes allergies. One recent study adds further credence to the disturbed microbiome hypothesis.
Certain Gut Bacteria Protect Against Food Allergies
The study,4, 5 which used mice, found that a common gut bacteria called Clostridia helps prevent sensitization to food allergens. In fact, immune responses to food allergens were reversed once Clostridia bacteria were put back into the mice.
Another common type of gut bacteria, Bacteroides, did not have this effect, suggesting Clostridia may have a unique role in this regard.
Using genetic analysis, the researchers determined that Clostridia instructs immune cells to produce a signaling molecule called interleukin-22 (IL-22), which is known to reduce the permeability of the lining in your intestines.
In other words, it helps prevent leaky gut syndrome—a condition that allows allergens to enter your bloodstream, thereby producing an immune response. The researchers suggest this discovery may eventually lead to probiotic therapies to treat food allergies. As reported by HealthCanal.com:6
“By inducing immune responses that prevent food allergens from entering the bloodstream, Clostridia minimize allergen exposure and prevent sensitization -- a key step in the development of food allergies...
Although the causes of food allergy... are unknown, studies have hinted that modern hygienic or dietary practices may play a role by disturbing the body's natural bacterial composition...
‘Environmental stimuli such as antibiotic overuse, high fat diets, caesarean birth, removal of common pathogens and even formula feeding have affected the microbiota with which we've co-evolved,’ said study senior author Cathryn Nagler, PhD, Bunning Food Allergy Professor at the University of Chicago.
‘Our results suggest this could contribute to the increasing susceptibility to food allergies.’"
Early Disruption of Gut Flora May Also Promote Metabolic Problems
In addition to an increased risk for allergies, early disruption of your microbiome can also have long-term effects on your metabolism. One recent study suggests that exposing infants to antibiotics may in fact predispose them to obesity.
The study, published in the journal Cell,7, 8 points to there being a window of time when changes to the microbiome can have a serious and long-term impact on your body’s metabolism.
This window was the first month of life in mice. Translating that to a human time scale—provided the effect fully applies to humans—it would correlate to a time frame of the first six months; potentially up to the first three years. Mice given antibiotics for the first four weeks of life grew up to be 25 percent heavier, and had 60 percent more body fat than the controls.
The researchers identified four specific species of gut bacteria that appeared to be of particular importance with regards to metabolism: Lactobacillus, Allobaculum, Rikenelleceae, and Candidatus arthromitus (the last one is not found in humans).
Eradicating these four species of bacteria in the mice’s guts triggered metabolic changes that led to obesity. As reported by The Guardian:9
“The findings... build on earlier work that found children who had antibiotics before six months of age were more likely to be overweight as seven-year-olds.
‘This is part of a growing body of evidence that antibiotics have a biological cost,’ said Martin Blaser, a microbiologist who led the study at New York University. ‘Our study shows that there can be permanent consequences.’
‘If a kid is very ill, there is no question that they should get antibiotics, but if it's marginal perhaps the doctor should be saying 'let's wait a day or two' before taking another look.
Doctors give out antibiotics thinking they won't do any harm, but this provides evidence that they might,’ Blaser added... ‘We found that four weeks of antibiotics was enough to perturb the microbiome, and even though it returned to normal after a few weeks, the mice still became fat.’”
Altering Your Microbiome Is Easy with the Appropriate Dietary Changes
The best way to optimize your gut flora is through your diet. First, you’ll want to make sure to avoid:
- Grains and sugar, as it promotes the growth of pathogenic yeast and other fungi. Grains containing gluten are particularly damaging to your microflora and overall health.10, 11
- Genetically engineered foods, as they contain some of the highest amounts of glyphosate. This agricultural herbicide has been found to decimate microbes, and tend to preferentially attack beneficial bacteria
- Processed and pasteurized foods, which harm your good bacteria
- Conventionally-raised meats and other animal products; CAFO animals are routinely fed low-dose antibiotics and GE livestock feed
- Chlorinated tap water, as chlorine kills not only pathogenic bacteria in the water but also beneficial bacteria in your gut
A gut-healthy diet is one rich in whole, unprocessed, unsweetened foods, along with traditionally fermented or cultured foods. Fermented foods are also a key component of the GAPS protocol, a diet designed to heal and seal your gut. Your goal should be to consume one-quarter to one-half cup of fermented veggies with each meal, but you may need to work up to it. Consider starting with just a teaspoon or two a few times a day, and increase as tolerated. If that is too much (perhaps your body is severely compromised), you can even begin by drinking a teaspoon of the brine from the fermented veggies, which is rich in the same beneficial microbes.
The video above is an extensive interview with Dr. McBride who is the Russian neurologist that developed the GAPS diet. You may also want to consider a high-potency probiotic supplement, but realize that there is no substitute for the real food. A previous article in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology12 makes the case that properly controlled fermentation amplifies the specific nutrient and phytochemical content of foods, thereby improving health.
Other Environmental Factors That Affect Your Microbiome
Besides an inappropriate diet, your microbiome is also affected by a variety of environmental factors and lifestyle choices, for better or worse. Spending time in the hospital increases your risk of acquiring something while there. A ten day stay means a 10 % chance of catching something.
Some of the factors posing the gravest dangers to your microbiome include:
Antibiotics (use only if absolutely necessary, and make sure to reseed your gut with fermented foods and/or a good probiotic supplement) ||NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) damage cell membranes and disrupt energy production by mitochondria)||Proton pump inhibitors (drugs that block the production of acid in your stomach, typically prescribed for GERD, such as Prilosec, Prevacid, and Nexium)
As noted in a recent BBC News report,13 lack of exposure to the outdoors can in and of itself cause your microbiome to become “deficient.” After tracking the whereabouts of two families for 24 hours, researchers found the family members spent on average 91 percent of their time indoors. This trend may in fact be one of the driving factors behind rising allergy statistics in the modern world—in short; we’re underexposed to beneficial bacteria that human beings used to get from the earth itself. According to the BBC:
“[A]rguably, the easiest thing for all of us to do to reduce our chances of becoming allergic is to go outside. Whether it is walking the dog or strolling to school, the evidence suggests that being outside and taking a good deep breath of fresh air is good for you. One study has even found that if you have more plants and flowers around your house you are not only more likely to have a diverse array of bacteria on your skin, you are also less likely to be allergic.
Professor Graham Rook, of University College London, calls these bacteria our ‘old friends,’ and has no doubt of their importance to our health. He says: ‘In a way, this realization that humans are in fact ecosystems and that we depend so much on these microorganisms is probably the most important advance in medicine in the last hundred years.’"