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Ever heard the term microbiome? In case you’re confused, we’re not talking about the Montreal Biodome in Olympic Park. We’re referring to the health of your gut which studies now show is related to the health of, well, just about everything else in your body. Our go-to functional medicine doctor, Dr. Mark Hyman, has several episodes of his brilliant podcast The Doctor’s Farmacy featuring a variety of experts on this very topic. (As Dr. Mark explains, functional medicine understands the body as one network which changes in real time based upon our sleep, stress, nutrition, environment, and all the things that our bodies do and come into contact with.)

So, what should you know about your microbiome? Well, the microbiome is a description of the health of the gut, but more than that, it is an essential part of healthy biological function and how different parts and elements of the body communicate. Need an example? Ever heard of serotonin? Most of us know that it’s a neurotransmitter or a way that your body carries messages between nerve cells in the brain. But it’s actually microbes in the gut that communicate with the nerves cells that do the work to metabolize tryptophan, turning it into serotonin. Why is this important? Well, because serotonin regulates mood, low serotonin levels have been linked to mental illness like depression. Stunningly, as Dr. Mark explains, our thoughts and feeling, emotions, and stress create a feedback loop to the gut that can damage gut health by altering bacteria, and causing inflammation, and “leaky gut”. Bottom line, your emotional health can be as impactful as your nutrition on your gut health and your emotional health and gut health are inseparable!

According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, the microbiome consists of trillions of microorganisms (known as microbiota or microbes) that are comprised of thousands of different species. The building blocks are various bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. But never fear, these “bugs” that hang out in the small and large intestines as well as other parts of the body are not only natural, they are essential to our very survival. But while everyone has a unique network of microbiota related to their genetics and environment, if the mix of microbes is not in balance, the body can succumb to disease. According to the folks at Harvard, factors that cause imbalance are things like infectious illnesses, certain diets, or the prolonged use of antibiotics or other bacteria-destroying medications.

Experts like Dr. Emeran Mayer have contributed to startling research findings that have shed light on the profound importance of this little understood area of our biology and health. As Mayer explains, the gut contains the biggest part of our immune system, the biggest part of our nervous system (outside of the brain), as well as the biggest part of the endocrine system, allowing us to understand that what was previously thought of as distinct biological systems are all profoundly connected through gut health. Therefore, as Dr. Mark concurs, “it’s unequivocal that our old paradigm of siloed diseases and specialities totally breaks down” and it’s now a recognized fact that “the microbiome is connected to every single disease…whether it’s diabetes, or obesity, or heart disease or cancer, Alzheimer’s or autism, or depression, or autoimmune disease”. The bottom line then? Damaging changes in the microbiome are connected to many of the all too normal chronic inflammatory diseases. But if the body is a network, and the gut is the centre of that network, improving our gut health will improve, well, everything!

If we understand that the microbiome is an ecosystem, we already know that ecosystems thrive on diversity. The microbes produce molecules that interact with the gut, the foods that we eat, and the chemicals in our environments. So how can we attain the correct balance? As you probably expected, nutrition is a huge part of maintaining a healthy microbiome. High fibre diets get broken down by enzymes released from the microbiota, the chemical reaction changes the pH of the colon and limits the growth of harmful bacteria. These fibres are also called prebiotics and although it is an option, you don’t have to take them as a supplement. They are found in an abundance in foods like asparagus, bananas, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, and onions, as well as other beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. (And by the way, the Blue Zone-live-to-100-folks clearly know this already.) But given the brain-gut connection, this also means that chronic stress is not your friend, so consider a mindfulness practices like meditation as a part of your new healthy lifestyle and remember that your gut is not an afterthought, it’s everything!