The miracle of the microbiome
Okay, so I’ve just completed a 9-module course on Ancient (Herbal) Medicine for Modern Illness, which covered not only western herbalism but also Native American, indigenous Peruvian, Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
It was absolutely amazing, so eye-opening, and I loved every second of it. But I’m not here to tell you about the variants and cross-overs of global physicks; part of the course included a whole module relating to the Immune System & the Microbiome, which is a hot topic in every respect at the moment, for both human and horse.
The module was about examining how natural medicine can boost these two intricate systems that are intertwined within the body. For some, the word "microbiome" is a new thing – it’s a fascinating and relatively new understanding, especially in the world of human health these days.
The microbiome, in essence, is the colony of microorganisms that live on the inside and the outside of each body, literally trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa and others, living right now, within each of us, and they’ve been cohabiting there for millions of years.
The long and short of it all is that our health isn't only about "us" as individuals. Our very lives depend upon the wellbeing of these vast colonies of microorganisms, and our immune system is so integrated with them that it's almost impossible to figure out where the immune system ends and where the microbiome begins.
In the past, most immunity research focused on things like white blood cells and antibodies, and while these are an absolutely integral piece of the puzzle, it turns out that science has been missing the most critical piece for decades. The relationship of the immune system to the microbiome is a fascinating world that must be understood for optimal health - it’s about balancing the whole system to prevent getting sick in the first place.
In a nutshell, it’s about rethinking how food isn’t about feeding just one mouth, but several trillion (!) in order to boost immune and overall physical health, and we're also talking how it affects everything from allergies, autoimmune conditions and digestive disorders.
I think we’d all agree that a strong immune system is a vital part of leading a healthy and happy life, but in order to fully understand how we can naturally boost and balance our immune system - and our horses' immunity, it's essential to understand what is happening. Or more accurately - understanding what's living inside our bodies on a microscopic level. Truth is, there’s more to us than we know, and this absolutely relates to our horses’ health as well.
If I was to translate all my notes and handouts into some semblance of order for your delight and delectation, it would take me a year and probably be a usual-Carol-100-pager, so I think what I’ll do is let the experts tell you themselves.
Here are some of their quotes:
- David Wolfe, Nutritionist, Superfoodist, Orator, Herbalist, Chocolatier, Organic Farmer
“The interesting discovery of this century is that most of us is not actually 'us'. We have ten times more bacteria than we have cells in our body, so we have maybe a hundred bacteria per single cell. Some of those are friendly, some are unfriendly. But the overall colony, the community of bacteria, we call the microbiome. And it covers the surface of our epithelial cells, the skin cells that cover our body, that cover our mouth and all the way through our digestive system. All the way through our intestines and all the way on the other side. Those epithelial cells are the farm of the microbiome.”
- Robert Rountree, MD Functional Medicine
“We know that the microbiome is a part of us, right? It's not in addition to us. Those bacteria in our gut are essential for our function in the same way that the bacteria in a termite's gut are critical for the termite to be able to eat the wood in the wall of your house. Or for a cow to eat grass, it's got to have those bacteria.
Well, we used to think that's all this bacteria did. We used to think they digested your food and that was the end of the story. Now we know that they program your immune system. Now we know that the cells of your immune system that line your gut, need those bacteria to function properly. So the microbiome is really critical for digestion, but it's also critical for immune function.
It's also critical for maintaining the gut wall barrier. How could that be? Well those bacteria interact with the DNA of the cells that line your gut wall, and there's messages that go back and forth, so the bacteria are actually influencing the health of the gut lining. Those bacteria, if they're good bacteria, are telling the gut lining to be thicker, to have a nice layer of mucous, and to not be inflamed. So we need this microbiome for a lot of different things.”
- Daniel Vitalis, Modern-day Hunter Gatherer, Host of WildFed
“The understanding of the human microbiome is going to overturn everything that we think we know about health, that we know about nutrition, that we know about medicine. Now we're starting to understand that our body is populated by them so much that I think the two most common things you'll hear is that you're ten times more bacteria than you are human cells, and that you're several pounds of bacteria. That's really fascinating.”
- Sayer Ji, founder of GreenMedInfo
“In 2000 there was like a supernova of research coming into the publication realm. Around 1970 there was maybe one or two citations and then suddenly there were hundreds, and now there are thousands every year on this topic. So we really didn't know much, scientifically, about the microbiome until around 2000.
Now here's the 21st century, and we’ve just basically discovered a topic that de-centers everything we thought we knew about the human body. And everything we thought we knew about us being somehow an isolated species in the biosphere.
I think we can say that the majority of the immune system is located in the alimentary canal. This tube, basically, controls what are we’re going to absorb, what are we going to let go and pass through. It’s the front line, these cells, these bacteria, and even viruses and fungi, playing an essential role in our immune function.”
- Richard Mandelbaum, Herbalist and Educator
There was a really fascinating study out of Finland a few years ago that found that the rate of atopic illnesses - in this case they were looking at allergies like eczema and hay fever and allergic asthma - was related directly to the microbiome on our skin. If we didn't have enough of a biodiverse natural microbiome on our skin, we were more likely to have that immunological imbalance.
All the antibiotics that we expose ourselves to, in our food, in our water, kills off our microbiome. The lack of a healthy diverse diet, the lack of fermented foods in our diet, and the lack of biodiversity that we live in. And a really interesting thing about this study was, they didn't stop there. They then looked at a small radius of area where people were living and discovered that the more biodiverse the native flowering plants were, the more biodiverse their skin microbiomes were. And the less likely they were to have these allergic states.
Think about it, it makes sense, right? Where are we picking up our microbiomes? From our environment, from getting our fingernails dirty and smelling flowers. It's all around us and it's not just from what probiotic brand you buy in the health food store with the highest CFU count."
Back to me again, and I’m going to close this blog with this quote, again from Robert Rowntree. I'm particularly fascinated about this quote because it really emphases how everything in the body is connected:
“There's also a number of different ways the microbiome can affect your psyche. One is that some of the bacteria can actually make neurotransmitters. That's a fairly new development. They can either make the transmitter directly, or they can make substances that influence cells in your gut; influence neurons in your gut to make neurotransmitters.
There's a huge nerve in the body called the ‘vagus nerve’ that goes from the brain all the way down to the gut. And we used to think that the main role of the vagus nerve is to basically calm things down, as in the parasympathetic nervous system.
There's a lot of new data now that says it's actually a two-way transmission. That if you influence the vagus nerve at gut level, signals go back into the brain. And that could be a good thing or a bad thing. If you've got a lot of gut bacteria that are either producing GABA or stimulating the gut cells to make GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is a calming neurotransmitter that sends chemical messages through the brain and the nervous system to reduce feelings of fear and anxiety), and I want to be clear, we don't exactly know which is which right now. We don't know, are the bacteria actually making it or are the gut cells making the GABA? What we do know is that the bacteria influence GABA production.
Drugs like Valium work on the GABA receptors, so maybe we're making our own Valium in our gut. And maybe the GABA that we're making in our gut then tracks up the vagus nerve or other nerves and goes into the brain and calms us down. It's pretty clear, based on some research done on probiotics, which are healthy bacteria that you can take as a supplement, that there are certain healthy bacteria that can influence mood and can improve depression / anxiety. I think that's really quite profound.”
I could go on and on with quotes but audio-typing them from the modules takes forever! I think we can all get the gist though,that in very simple terms, maintaining a healthy, diverse, and plentiful microbiome for our horses, is more important than we ever knew. And for us too.
Appropriate food, a biodiverse environment, a stress-free lifestyle, and a healthy microbiome. I’m sure tons more will come on this incredibly eye-opening subject in the weeks/months/years to come.