It’s been a while, so let’s recap, ever so briefly, my last post on the significance of the integrity of the gut microbiome to mental health (and overall wellbeing in general). [Thanks to Dr Jason Hawrelak for providing the following excellent summary at the NHAA 9th International Conference on Herbal Medicine – post on that to follow]. What has now come to be known as the ‘Human Microbiome’ (also microbiota), is found throughout the entire gastro-intestinal tract, as well as the lungs and the genitourinary system. The largest concentration of microorganisms is found in the colon (large intestine), where it has been estimated to house a population of over 1000 different species making up 10 (14) – that’s 10 to the power of 14 – viable micro-organisms. Collectively, if we think of it as an organ in itself, it would weigh around 1.15kg. That’s massive. What does ‘it’ do?
- modulates the immune response
- normalises gut motility (helps regularity of bowel movement)
- improves nutritional status (including salvaging energy from food that we can’t digest – like insoluble fibre)
- metabolism of plant constituents such as polyphenols, and phytoestrogens.
- resists colonisation of pathological (harmful) bacteria.
- helps with weight management
- improves and manages mood
- may be linked to longevity.
Factors that damage the microbiota include;
- antibiotics (whether taken personally or through those given to animals, which is passed on in their products)
- Proton Pump inhibitor drugs (antacids)
- heavy metals & pesticides
- the oral contraceptive pill
- stress – can lead to inflammation and proliferation of Candida.
- dietary factors – such as sulphates & sulphites (preservatives), high protein diets, high fat diets, Glyphosphate (Round Up – pesticide) consumption, sucralose consumption, diets high in refined carbohydrates. The Standard Western Diet starves the microbiota, largely due to a lack of fibre and increased pesticide consumption.
For women looking to become pregnant, be aware that we only pass on to our children what we ourselves already have. In my previous post I discussed the importance of the birth process (and environment) in regard to colonisation of the newborn gut. New research now shows that while this is still the case, microbiota is also passed on in the womb. I recently came across an excellent article (including infographic) that profoundly demonstrates this; http://midwifethinking.com/2014/01/15/the-human-microbiome-considerations-for-pregnancy-birth-and-early-mothering/ I really do urge you to read this. It also gives details of how you can safeguard your baby’s gut health if a planned (or even unplanned) C-section is on the cards. So there’s a lot of talk about probiotics, and in particular fermented and cultured foods nowadays. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE fermented foods. I make my own sauerkraut, kimchi, water kefir, cultured nut cheeses, tempeh, coconut yoghurt. I could go on. But we are now aware that we can not actually recolonise the gut unless we use an indigenous strain (often donated from a family member as an implant). Does this mean that taking probiotics and eating cultured foods are useless? Not at all. I feel that they are most beneficial when you need to do something therapeutic and very quickly, such as after a course of antibiotics (which takes roughly 18 months – 2 years to recover and restore microbiome integrity, after EACH course), and there’s a case of thrush for example. I also feel that cultured foods are easier on the digestion, and being partially pre-digested, also break down harder to digest plant constituents. We also know that the micro-organisms responsible for the fermentation/culture can also increase the nutrient profile of the food. Our focus however should be on feeding and nourishing the ‘survivors’, or what we do have, so that they will multiply and repopulate (which they do very quickly). To do this we look to prebiotic foods, foods high in FOS (fructooligosaccharides), inulin, and GOS (galactooligosaccharides). In severe cases (such as after chemotherapy) we might also use prebiotic supplements. Foods high in these probiotics include; jerusalem artichoke, dandelion root, sweet potato, legumes, carrots, black currents, almonds, green tea, and dark cocoa. Resistant starch-rich foods which also nourish the microbiota include bananas and soaked oats. Incidentally, oats are especially beneficial for the nervous system, and for people who can tolerate gluten are a useful adjunct for helping calm the nerves and manage stress. Dark coloured fruits and berries, rich in polyphenols also nourish and feed the microbiota. So generally speaking a diet rich in whole plant foods, medium protein, and medium fat, whole grains if tolerated, especially rich in fibre, lots of variety, and a rainbow of coloured fruits and vegetables is the most beneficial for nourishing the gut and the microbiota. For many people, a blow to the microbiota also sees the rise of another opportunistic organism, Candida albicans. Candida like some other potentially harmful organisms can proliferate so much in the absence of beneficial micro-organims that it can lead to the development of a ‘leaky gut’. That is, the integrity of the gut lining has been damaged, nutritional status and immunity is compromised. This in turn may lead to the development of sensitivities and intolerances, allergies if chronic, as well as mental health concerns such as irritability, depression, etc. Fortunately, there is much we can do to reduce the incidence of Candida, as well as ‘heal and seal’ the leaky gut, and encourage the restoration of the healthy gut microbiota. Glutamine is an amino acid that is healing to the gut membrane. Botanically we can also do much to heal and restore, alongside stress management techniques, nourishing diet, and reducing the factors that damage the microbiome, (including avoiding allergies, sensitivities, and intolerant foods during the healing process). My favourite ‘go to’ botanical for healing the gut is Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). I have had personal success with it for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and gut inflammation in general. Chamomile is gentle but powerful, it’s capacities as a healing herb include soothing and reducing inflammation in the mucous membranes. It also has a bitter principle, beneficially effecting digestion and liver function. It is calming and nourishing to the nervous system. I give it in cases with chronic stress, anxiety, and gut disturbance either as a simple (15-30 drops 3x/day adult dose) and in formula with other supporting herbs. For restoring gut integrity and healing the gut lining, I like Calendula (Calendula officianalis), & Golden Seal (Hydrastis canadensis. Calendula is a demulcent (or soothing) wound healing herb. It also has a bitter principle and is anti-fungal, so is useful if candida is an issue). Golden Seal is anti-microbial but is also a good mucous membrane trophorestorative (healing tonic). Having said that I would use low dose, and for no longer than 3 weeks. Golden Seal is currently threatened in the wild, so only cultivated plants should be used. I’m currently looking into a New Zealand native as a replacement for Golden Seal. Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) apparently grows abundantly in NZ, and is a mucous membrane tonic comparable to Golden Seal. It is also anti-inflammatory, has antimicrobial activity, and reduces spasms. If these plants aren’t available to you however, other suitable soothing and wound healing herbs such as Plantain (Plantago major), Marshmallow (Althea officinalis), and Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva – use only cultivated sources, also nutritive). I have also had good success with the gel from the fresh inner leaf of Aloe vera (Aloe barbedness, or Aloe saponaria, or Aloe arborensis are all interchangeable) added to a morning smoothie. Aloe, like plantain and the much maligned comfrey, contains allantoin, a constituent known for ‘knitting tissue back together’. So these sorts of botanicals will work to reduce inflammation and heal and seal the gut wall. If candida is an issue, herbs such as Pau d’arco (Tabebuia avellanedae), and Cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) are beneficial for reducing the candida population and supporting the immune response. Horopito (Pseudowintera coloratura), another New Zealand native, is an excellent herb for treating dysbiosis in the gut. Other herbs with bitter principles such as dandelion root (Taraxacum officianale), and vervain (Verbena officianalis) are also useful for supporting digestion and liver function (and aid in detoxing toxins which damage the microbiota). Verbena has the added benefit of being a nervine -supporting the nervous system. Never fear, I haven’t forgotten the original premise of this two-part post. Mental health in relation to microbiome integrity must also include stress management, and nourishing the nervous system, and you may also want to look at the heavy metal load in your body (this has far-reaching effects). I think you will go a long way to helping mental health if you just work on the gut and restoring the microbiota with the diet and lifestyle factors I’ve discussed above, as well as reducing the toxic load and supporting those systems responsible for that. However, I think that supporting the adrenal glands and the stress response, as well as nourishing the nervous system is just as useful. We are, after all, whole beings that are greater than the sum of our parts. Liquorice (Glycirrhyza glabra), Oats (Avena sativa) -not if gluten intolerant or coeliac, Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) are just some really beneficial botanicals. As you can see, the health of the gut is paramount to our overall health & wellbeing. Our mental health is a reflection of that. As Dr Hawrelak said, “we are custodians of the microbiota, what we do it can effect our entire lineage”. Stephen Harrod Buhner speaks of the symbiosis of the microbiota and ourselves, and how it defines us. For a long time we weren’t really aware of this entity living within us, silently keeping us alive, but now we are and we need to stop destroying it. The more I delve into the mysteries of who we are as wholistic beings, the more I see the macro reflected in the micro. If we corrupt the earth, if we corrupt the food we depend on, we corrupt ourselves. but not only that we have a responsibility to look after this microbiota that looks after us. We are custodians through and through. If you would like to explore this further in relation to your own health, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with a qualified herbalist or naturopath, or integrative medical practitioner who can help you restore your wellbeing. many blessings, Michelle x [Thanks to Phil Rasmussen and the technical info from Optimal Rx for the information on the NZ natives.)