The Critters Inside You

Let's start with something easy: you have an immune system. But if I asked you to point to it, where would your finger land? Do you know where it is in your body? I didn't. Turns out that most of it's in your gut, your intestines. And that makes sense because that's where everything we eat passes into our blood, so we need a vigilant security force there, right? So far so good.

There's been a lot of talk lately about gut health, probiotics, cleanses, and healthy intestinal bacteria, and for good reason. Amazingly, the bacteria that live in and on us outnumber our own human cells by a whopping 10 to 1, so we're smart to pay attention to these critters. They either make or break our health, because they train our immune system.

I thought I'd try to simplify the buzz for you, inspired by a great lecture by Dr. Robynne Chutkan. Here's my Guts for Dummies course on what a microbiome is, why you should care, and how you can make the most of yours.

Since the 1600s, we've known that we have living organisms (bacteria) inside us, which is what we now call a microbiome. We were right that bacteria can make us sick, invite disease and need to be destroyed. But it took us 400 years to realize that there are also good guys: friendly bacteria that are an essential part of keeping our immune system healthy. I understand the resistance to that idea - it's a little creepy to think of this thriving, enormous community living in and on us - my gut instinct would be to wipe them out, too! (No pun intended...) Now we know there's a growing list of symptoms and diseases associated with an unhealthy microbiome: autoimmune disease of course, diabetes, obesity, even neurological conditions like bipolar disorder are all connected to our intestinal bacterial health.

So why do you need to know about this? I mean, if it's there, so what? It can do it's thing without your having to think about it, right? Not so much. You've heard the phrase "you are what you eat" (probably from me as it's my favorite). But to be even more specific, you are what your gut microbes eat. The food you eat feeds them, and, depending on your choices, you either create a strong colony of disease-fighters, or... the opposite. In a couple of recent studies, feeding the exact same people different diets drastically changed the type of microbes they had. The high chemical, white flour, sugar, meat and dairy diet (Standard American Diet) led to bacteria that literally shifted gene expression to allow disease in. What about the high plant, high fiber, unprocessed diet? You've probably guessed: that microbiome led to lean, healthy, inflammation-free bodies that were plenty strong to keep disease away.

Convinced? I hope so. And cultivating a healthy gut is simple. You don't need to take this or that pill, or eat this or that specific food with added cultures or whatever. That's all marketing. Just head back to the produce section and fill your basket there. The good microbes'll thrive on that, and the nasty ones won't. By shifting your meals to more plants and less other stuff, you're creating a Master Immunity Community right where you need it.