Identity. How often have you considered your identity? Over the past few months, our collective ‘Bahamian’ identity has been contemplated on radio talk shows, in newspaper articles, and in lively debates in social settings as we approach the fiftieth Anniversary of Independence.
But how would you describe your individual identity? Are you a Bahamian first? Or are you a man or a woman? Are you your race or your familial role? Are you really who you say you are? However you define yourself, I can bet you are not including the three pounds of microbial hitchhikers that are teeming in and on your body.
The 37 trillion human cells that comprise our bodies are accompanied by an additional 39 trillion bacterial cells! And this number is not taking into consideration the fungi, viruses, and archaea (whatever they are) that are also along for the ride. Before you run for the sanitizer, know that these beneficial, microscopic beings are an essential part of a complex system called the microbiome.
A Healthy Microbiome
A healthy, diverse microbiome confers not only physical health but mental and emotional health. Communication between the microbiome and human organ systems happens by way of the byproducts released as they digest the food we consume.
For instance, let’s take the by-products of the fiber that these bacteria eat. Our microbiome digests the fiber in fruits and vegetables and releases short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the process. These SCFAs go on to star in various roles around the body – lowering cholesterol, reducing inflammation, activating immune cells, suppressing hunger, and stimulating the growth of blood vessels contributing to wound healing, to name a few.
Other byproducts of our microbial partners’ digestion function to reduce stress and anxiety and protect against certain cancers and Type 2 diabetes. Recently discovered is the microbiome’s role in mental health as a whopping ninety-five percent of serotonin and fifty percent of dopamine were found to be produced in the gut.
These neurotransmitters are key players in controlling mood, sleep, memory, pleasurable reward and motivation, and behavior. Our microbiome is so intricately involved in so many bodily functions that it is hard to tell who is really in control – human cells or microbes!
If how the microbiome keeps us healthy isn’t fascinating enough, consider how we get the microbiome in the first place. How we are born and nourished during the first days of our lives, and postpartum is crucial to developing a healthy microbiome.
The protective environment of the womb was once believed to be sterile, but it is now known that beneficial bacteria first colonize us in utero through the placenta.
Our microbial community is further enhanced as we traverse the birth canal on our “birth day.” Even more beneficial bacteria jump on board during the initial skin-to-skin contact with mummy immediately after birth.
This growing community of health-conferring partners is further fortified in two ways if one is breastfed. Firstly, breastmilk delivers additional bacterial species drawn from the mother’s gut by certain immune cells. The second way breastfeeding fortifies the microbiome is almost poetic.
Breastmilk is a brilliantly convoluted fluid containing over 200 complex sugars. These sugars are not digested in the baby’s stomach but pass through untouched all the way to the large intestine to be broken down by the microbes. In essence, “Mother” would’ve created these complex sugars to feed the very microbes she endowed the baby with during gestation and birth.
Microbiome’s Critical Role
The byproducts of this digestion are short-chain fatty acids that the baby’s gut cells consume. Can you now imagine how detrimental elective C-sections and formula feeding can be to a newborn’s development?
Alarmingly, studies have shown that the microbiome of babies who are delivered by C-section more closely resembles the microbial community of the delivery room than of the mother’s microbiome. This is not an ideal start to a long, healthy life, as studies have found that children born by C-section are more likely to develop allergies, asthma, Coeliac disease, and obesity as they grow older.
The critical role a robust microbiome plays in one’s immediate and long-term wellbeing is important enough to encourage natural birth and breastfeeding on a national level.
We should incorporate several lifestyle habits to maintain or establish a healthy, diverse microbiome. Because our microbes eat what we eat, we must nurture them with the foods that cause them to thrive so that they can, in turn, cause us to thrive. A diet rich in whole, plant foods is most favorable to
beneficial microbes that devour the fiber contained. Consuming fresh fruits and vegetables also strengthens the microbiome as the produce itself is covered with beneficial microbes that colonize our gut. Frequently spending time outdoors, coming into physical contact with the soil and breathing the air exposes us to trillions of microbes.
Keeping a pet is another way to increase the diversity of microbial colonizers. Regularly consuming fermented foods that contain living cultures also contributes to microbiome fortification. Yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha are a few of the yummy ways you can introduce more microbes to your gut.
Probiotic capsules are often taken and do help, but to achieve the diversity necessary, one should not rely on commercially available probiotic capsules alone.
Fortifying the microbe is easily achieved. Unfortunately, modern-day life makes the destruction of the microbiome even easier. The widespread use of antibiotics in healthcare and the industrial production of meat threatens healthy microbiomes. Chlorinated and fluorinated water from municipal water treatment facilities negatively impacts the microbiome.
The typical Western diet rich in highly processed foods and animal proteins and fats; and poor in fiber-rich fruit and vegetables starves beneficial bacteria and favors the overgrowth of pathological microbes. Widespread use of topical sanitizers, antimicrobial cleaners like bleach, and products that incorporate antimicrobial agents further diminishes our microbial helpers.
Stress negatively impacts the gut environment making it less favorable for beneficial microbes to thrive and allowing the bad guys to flourish. Collectively, these practices will ultimately result in dysbiosis – or a microbiome that is out of balance.
Dysbiosis has been linked to diseases as far ranging as psoriasis, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, obesity and autism, which is nothing short of shocking!
Now, how would you answer the question ‘Who are you’? We can no longer consider ourselves just Homo sapiens.
We are halobiont – Homo sapiens and a host of other species existing together for mutual benefit. In the biological world, we are colonized by an unseen community that, if nurtured, will guarantee a lifetime of health and wellbeing, so take care of your beneficial colonizers.
About One Eleuthera Foundation
Founded in 2012, One Eleuthera Foundation is a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to transforming our local island communities into thriving, self-sufficient ecosystems. We do this by focusing on five key areas: economic ownership, meaningful educational advancement, pathways to wellness, and environmentally sustainable communities centered around our island’s unique cultural identity. We run a number of social enterprises, including CTI, our vocational school; the Retreat Hotel, a training hotel for hospitality students; and our farm and Cooling House, which trains future farmers in the best sustainability and food production practices. Through OEF’s consistent dedicated efforts, the tenacity and resourcefulness of our legacy community, and the support of donors and partners, we are creating change in Eleuthera.