We have some powerful little travelers with us in our gut. Our gut bacteria is comprised of 90% of the cells in our body, and 99% of our DNA. Seriously, you are much more bacteria than human (you’re only really 10% human). Author Michael Pollen likes to call us “bacteria locomotion machines” instead of human, because, well…we are.
How our bacteria affects our body is on the cutting edge of current research. We’re just starting to scratch the surface in finding out how many roles bacteria play in our body and health. Keep this in mind – our bacteria and even parasites want us to be as healthy as possible so they have a great environment to live in. If we’re sick, then their entire world is sick. They’re our best allies in our health.
What I find really amazing is that many of our body systems evolved around our gut bacteria. Without bacteria in our gut, many body systems (including our brain and nervous system) just don’t function properly. This bacteria connection is most apparent in the immune system.
New research has found that our gut bacteria regulates the immune system. It’s our little microbes that tell our immune system when to react and not to react. I find this almost unbelievable! It shows that we are innately bound to our environment and diet. It’s from the soil around us, the animals in our life, our fellow housemates, and the food we eat that we gather our microbiota (gut bacteria), and it’s these bacteria growing in our gut that protect us from illness.
While we’re just beginning to understand this connection, it’s becoming clear that the order in which bacteria and parasites (yes, parasites can be good for us at times) enter our body determines how our immune system will function. If we have the right kinds of bacteria and parasites in our gut then our immune system is healthy, strong, and balanced.
An Immune System Out of Balance
But, our life today is very different from the way our life would have been 100 years ago. For one, it’s much cleaner and our interactions with bacteria in our life are much lower than it has been in the past. One seemingly rogue bacteria, H.pylori, is at its lowest level in human history. H.pylori is usually seen as a “bad guy” because of its connection to stomach ulcers, but it also regulates IBS and some auto-immune conditions.
Certain parasites (especially when inoculated in childhood) can modulate the immune system and stimulate the production of a type of immune regulating cell called “regulatory T cells.” Without these cells the immune system can become over-stimulated and overactive, leading to higher rates of asthma, allergies, and auto-immune conditions.
How Can This Be True?
Scientists have been baffled for generations at the lack of asthma and allergies in people living very traditional lives. They’ve studied very diverse groups, from Amazonian tribes to the Amish, and found surprisingly low rates of the immune imbalances plaguing those living more modern lifestyles. Allergies first became recognized during the Industrial Revolution, and it was found only in the upper classes. Hay fever became posh, because only the very rich suffered from sneezing and wheezing every spring.
We’re just beginning to uncover how different strains of bacteria in our gut help to regulate our immune system. Currently there are some with auto-immune conditions and severe allergies that are self-inoculating with certain parasites to see if it relieves them of their symptoms. For some, the answer is yes, but for others it can create severe digestive distress (therefore, please don’t try this at home, and speak with your doctor or nutritionist before attempting this treatment).
Okay…so now what?
You’ll be seeing more and more news in the media about the role of our gut bacteria in our health. Every week they’re connecting strains of bacteria to many conditions, including obesity, depression, and diabetes (both Type I & II).
In the meantime, while we’re still searching for answers, simply be kind to your gut bacteria. Take good quality probiotics (good bacteria), feed them with fermented foods, and eat a diet high in plant-based food. This how to keep your wonderful inner ecosystem and your microbiota healthy and happy.