Your microbiome is getting a lot more attention lately, which makes sense because as of 10 years ago nobody even knew the word “microbiome” let alone had any idea why they should pay attention to it. Your microbiome, according to Joshua Lederberg who coined the term, is:
“The ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space.”
What that means in reality is that this is your population of bugs. It’s the bacteria and microbes that populate your skin, your digestive tract, your mouth, ears, eyes, fingers, toes and genitals. It’s the community that makes up you. In fact, if you look at your entire body there are about 100 trillion organisms – that’s 100,000,000,000,000. Essentially that means there are at least three times as many bacterial cells as human ones. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Even without all the research, it follows naturally that just like your bacteria need you to survive, you need your bacteria to survive too. Your microbiome helps you to protect yourself from harmful bacteria that might actually produce disease, help you digest your food, manufacture vitamins for you to absorb and generally maintain the health of your tissues. In fact there is a link between poor mixtures of bacteria in the gut and conditions like obesity, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and even some cancers.
Your microbiome, as imagined by Rosemary Mosco, artist at birdandmoon.com
So let’s talk about taking care of your microbiome – all those trillions of things are helping to protect you, so it makes sense that you should also protect them. In this post we’ll talk about lifestyle factors and the next post will focus on the best diet for your community of trillions.
Keys to a healthy microbiome:
- Get dirty already. There is a growing body of evidence that shows that modern standards of hygiene are linked to the increasing incidence of allergies and autoimmune disorders. We don’t just keep clean, we actually make an attempt to ‘sterilize’ which is a horrible idea because if we actually managed it we’d probably die shortly thereafter. One of our major sources of new microbial material is simple soil – the earth from the place where you live. This to me is a great reason to get out there and garden, to eat veggies from your garden straight out of the soil, and generally wallow around in the rich microbial environment that the earth has provided for us.
- Boycot the sanitizer. Of course it’s important to wash your hands if you’re exposed to people who have the flu or if you’re around a sick population, but wash with warm water and regular (not antibacterial) soap. Avoid the hand sanitizer, which typically contains toxic ingredients (like triclosan) and doesn’t actually help other than to encourage bacteria to develop triclosan resistance. So yes to normal hand washing as a way to prevent acute illness, but no to the overly-clean “sanitized” hands.
- Forget the antibacterial soaps. Not just do you not want to kill your bacteria, which sharply reduces the interest in anything antibacterial, there is also no actual benefit to most things labeled as antibacterial. Research studies have compared the effects of soaps and consumer products which claim to be antibacterial versus those which don’t and found literally no difference. In fact, the FDA is currently taking a closer look at whether or not it is ethical for this labeling to continue.
- Skip the antibiotics unless they are absolutely necessary. Obviously antibiotics have a broad range of killing potential and that includes your healthy microbiome. Antibiotics don’t discriminate. Obviously there is a time and a place where antibiotics could save your life and I am all for that use, but there is also a time and a place where your doctor hands you a prescription because they don’t feel right letting you leave the office without something in your hand, but it’s also probably not really useful for whatever you’re coming to see them for (like the ear infection). We also know that the effect of broad-spectrum antibiotics on your microbiome is long-lasting.
- Consider probiotics when you need them. Probiotics are basically packaged bacteria that are similar to the ones that make their home in your gut. If you’re in a situation where you had to take antibiotics or you had a stomach bug that might have knocked out the bacteria in your gut then it can be really helpful to replace those with a supplement. Of course there are lots of different options for probiotics, and different ones are better for different situations so we’ll save the which-probiotic-is-best conversation for another day.
- Wear your probiotics with pride. It isn’t just your gut that benefits from beneficial bacteria, your skin is a colony too. Fermented foods which contain bacteria similar to the bacteria in your gut can make a great topical treatment for a variety of skin imbalances. There is a reason that yoghurt skin masks are so awesome. Or kombucha toner. In fact, here are a couple of my favorite skin care recipes from my book, DIY Health: For Women.
Yummy Yogurt mask for dry skin:
1 teaspoon yogurt
1 teaspoon honey
1 tbsp oatmeal
Protein Microbiome Tingler:
Leave this one on until it dries and it will refresh and renew your skin. The enzymes in the papaya and the probiotics in the kombucha eat away dead skin cells and replenish your skin microbiome and the raw egg firms up your collagen and connective tissue. You can always add a few drops of essential oil for additional pampering. Blend it up in the blender and apply to your face, decollete, or really any area that needs a little lift.
1 raw egg
1 tbsp kombucha
1/4 cup papaya
The bottom line is that if you’re fighting against your microbiome, or being generally unfriendly with the sanitizers and wipes then it’s time to consider changing your tune and softening up your attitude towards your friendly helpers. Without your microbiome, your life would be a whole lot harder so learn to love your own trillions of personal assistants.
For more information about your microbiome in general check out this great document from the American Academy of Microbiology.