2014: Year of the Microbiome

There’s nothing worse than a “why my blog is stagnant” post, so I’ll spare you. Suffice to say I blog when I have fresh ideas, and don’t blog when I have nothing original to add. I’m not interested in rewriting what’s already been written elsewhere. My goal is to make a real contribution to the Paleo-sphere. 

At the beginning of 2014 I resolved to improve my microbiome, inspired by a great series on microbiome research from NPR and the fact that my GI function wasn’t where it used to be. After four years, my Paleo honeymoon was over. Old GI problems had resurfaced and I was getting sick more often, despite no dietary changes. I believed there was likely a gut microbiome component to this, and my long-term GI issues as well. Perhaps an important strain of bacteria was missing, or the balance between gut bugs was off.

It’s hard to know, even today. The science isn’t clear on what the human microbiome should look like, and more and more it appears that there is no single microbial profile that promotes health. Striking differences in the microbiomes of healthy people exist. On top of that, an individual’s microbiome is very dynamic, changing with diet and other factors.

That said, I’m also coming to the realization that one’s microbiome may be the single most important factor in one’s health. Recently, it was shown that after simply transferring the bacteria from an obese person to a slim person, the slim person became obese. The importance of the microbiome will continue to be uncovered as research continues.

So what have I done? I’ve started regularly eating fermented foods, and experimented with supplementing with resistant starch and soil-based organisms (SBO). I’ve also dramatically reduced the amount of soap I use. Few diet and lifestyle changes I’ve made over the years have had as profound and immediate an impact as this has. Some of the things I’ve experienced included improved sleep, vivid dreams, mental clarity, and literally overnight GI function improvement after weeks of problems.

A primer on resistant starch:

I’m also going to go out on a limb and posit that the effects, both positive and negative, of diet are actually the results of how those dietary changes affect the microbiome.

Eat your veggies and a salad everyday? Chances are you are getting a good helping of SBO with that as well. Not to mention the prebiotic fiber that the microbiome needs to thrive.

Eating processed junk food regularly? There are many pathways for that to disrupt the microbiome. The best understood pathway is through refined sugar, which disrupts the balance of bacteria and causes yeast overgrowth that begins a cascade of systemic inflammation. Artificial sweeteners that are promoted as a replacement for sugar for diabetics actually increase glucose intolerance through altering the microbiome. Now scientists are finding that some preservatives in processed foods can hurt the microbiome as well. I could go on.

The most intriguing aspect of all of this is the interaction of the microbiome and epigenome. Remember that DNA is not exactly the blueprint for how one’s physiology will turn out. Most of the genes that affect health and are linked to chronic disease are expressed or not-expressed through interaction with the environment. Recent studies are uncovering ways that microbiome/genetic interaction play a role in Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, and cancer. I think this is the tip of the iceberg.

I suspect that future research will show that there are few areas of human health that aren’t impacted by the microbiome, and we’ll see increased importance put on maintaining gut health as a means to promote and maintain overall health.