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Ep. 18 – The Microbiome: Ignoring our new organ

The microbiome contains all the microbes we’ve been exposed to but do we take care of it and nurture it? Is it responsible for our declining health and immune system? We’ll take a look at what some are calling our newly discovered organ on today’s episode.

Welcome to Straight Talk on Health, I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. together with WGVU in Grand Rapids, Michigan I examined the latest and greatest in the world of health. Whether it's research that makes headlines, another miracle diet, a new supplement or an exercise trend. I look at the science behind them and let you know whether it's real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website: drchet.com - and please sign up for my free e-mails.

On today's show we're going to talk about the microbiome. It is our new organ. At least it's been classified as such. And I think it's the one thing that we do our best to ignore. What I want to do is explain a little bit about the microbiome. What's in it? What does it do besides help your digestive system process food? It does many, many other things, tell you the good things that you can do and some of the things that you should not do to help protect it.

Let me start with this statement: The immune system begins in the gut. Now, when I say gut I mean everything from your stomach all the way through your large intestine, the whole 9 yards. Okay. And actually, it's more like 10 yards when you put it all together. Yeah, you have at least 30 feet of small intestine and then probably 10 to 12 feet of large intestine, stomach doesn’t take up that much room but you get the idea. Now why is it that long? Because it takes time to break food down and it requires a lot of different processes. He's now some of those are biochemical. You have stomach acid. You have digestive enzymes. They do their job. But it's not just chemical from that perspective. You see, within that digestive system, especially in the large intestine. You have the microbiome.

A lot of people have different definitions of it because the microbiome includes all the bacteria and other microbes that exist anywhere on or in your body. Your eyes have their own microbiome, your teeth have their own microbiome within the gum line. Your skin, especially has its own microbiome. And so what are the components of this? When I say microbiome the microbes and talking about are primarily bacteria. Those are the ones that we hear about. You hear about probiotics. Those are the good bacteria. And for the most part, they have very beneficial impacts on the body. They do a myriad of things. They can help process things like the basic nutrients for vitamin B12 and other vitamins. It's their processing that allows them to get into a form that can be absorbed and then be utilized by the body. There's a lot of effort that goes into chelating the minerals and then getting those things that are absorbed. Now, some of these are biochemical, but a lot of things are done by these various microbes. You know, some of the microbes that we're talking about here, but they only do what they do in milliseconds. I mean, it's amazingly fast, but they do it. And then it moves on down the line for processing.

So we're talking about things like, we already said bacteria, you also can have some viruses in there that are they're normal part. You also have some yeast and then there's other things that have long, funny names and are strange looking, but they all have a function. Here's the thing, this is an oversimplification, but it is inevitably true. Good bacteria trump the bad bacteria. So if you have a good healthy microbiome, you could find that there are different types of bacteria that we would consider unfriendly. There may be h pylori, in fact there’s always h pylori in your body. There may be some forms of salmonella. Now they don't create a problem as long as the microbiome gets fed. Now, what does the microbiome like to eat? Mostly things that are fiber, that come from fruits and vegetables and other things. They mostly like that.

Now, you have to understand that if you're a plant-based eater you're going to have a different microbiome than someone who is a meat-based eater. I don't mean you exclusively eat meat, but there is a difference. The higher the meat intake, the more different the bacteria are that favor that type of eating pattern as opposed to what's in the bacteria, et cetera, that you get in plants. Can we live with either one? Yeah, there are people that haven’t eaten meat in a long time. There are people who just abhor vegetables and they would never eat them. However, if we want to think about what's best for our immune system, you want to make sure that however you do it, you want to keep the microbiome happy.

Let me give you an example of one of the reasons why. You know, I can remember growing up watching infomercials and having health experts on TV talk about the mucus buildup in your digestive system. Well, actually what they were talking about was the thickening that happens when you drink milk, if you drink full-fat milk there's this like thickening that they've called mucus that occurs inside your mouth. That is very little to do with what goes on in your body, your entire small intestine, and your large intestine, and especially your stomach has a variety of cells that produce mucus. If you did not make that mucus, the acid content of your stomach would eat through. In fact sometimes it does. What's that called? It's called an ulcer.

Can it happen in the small intestine? Yeah. The first part is the duodenum and that can be a duodenal ulcer. It is exceptional, but it can happen. Now, what happens to the mucus barrier? Well, there are times when, let's just keep it simple, bad bacteria start to eat up all the mucus. And what can happen literally is that it exposes the cells underneath and what goes in and around all those cells in your digestive system, are blood supply. And so there is a theory of autoimmune disease whereby proteins or pieces of protein will go into the bloodstream. The body will recognize it as an invader and it will create antibodies for it. Now if this is something that is normally found in the body, and let me give you an example: insulin, then what the body does is create anti-bodies to destroy the insulin-producing cells. And that's where you get type one diabetes.

Are there any other conditions like that? Every autoimmune disease is thought to originate with that because one of the things that the microbiome helps the body do is make the proteins it needs. We call that the proteome. That's something that is critical to the way our body functions. If we keep a healthy microbiome, then these hot spots if you want to call it, where the mucus has been eaten away are less prevalent or may not occur at all. And so that's why keeping the microbiome happy is critical. You know, I said the immune system starts there, but there is a direct relationship between the gut and the brain. And a lot of research now is looking at how the brain and gut axis may be linked to the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. And so as goes your gut, so goes your body.

And so why are we having so many problems it seems today? Well, I did some little thinking about it. Let me give you 3 things briefly. The food supply has changed. Now there are differences in the bacteria that are prevalent in primarily meat eaters versus plant-based eaters. Bu what I'm really talking about are highly processed foods that have gotten into our food supply. There's been a number of studies lately that have said highly processed foods, the more of them you eat, more risk of cardiovascular disease, more risk of cancer, the more risk of mortality that you're at. And so the problem is you’re not feeding the good bacteria. When you feed the bad bacteria, bad things can happen. And they like sugar. They like all the things that they use for food that the good bacteria do not. The other thing is it stands to reason that over the millennia there have been some changes because the food has changed from, let's say, more whole foods to more processed foods that those bacteria have mutated and they are different than what they used to be. And then the final thing is that our microbiome has not only been impacted by highly processed foods, but also some food additives, that's been in the news lately, as well as pharmaceuticals and nothing destroys microbiome like pharmaceutical antibiotics. Doesn't mean you shouldn't take them but you have to be aware.

So how do you boost up the microbiome? Eat your vegetables, preferably raw. Eat your fruit, preferably raw. Fermented foods and don't forget to eat your fiber, both soluble and insoluble fiber. They feed your microbiome. It's our brand new organ people and how we treat it is how we feed it and how we feed it will impact our health. That's all the time we have for the show. Until next time, this is Dr. Chet Zelasko saying health is a choice, people, choose wisely today and every day.

Narr: Straight Talk on Health with Dr. Chet Zelasko is recorded in the studios of WGVU Public Radio in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The views and opinions expressed on Straight Talk on Health are not necessarily those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University. Episodes are found at wgvunews.org and wherever you get your podcasts, please rate and subscribe.

Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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