An increasing number of trials are revealing that adjusting and rebalancing the microbiome can have powerful results in the treatment of these conditions.
So what IS the microbiome exactly?
The microbiome refers to the sum total of microbes (microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi) that live in, or on, various parts of our bodies. The vast majority of these guys are found in the large intestine, and have a combined weight of up to 1.5kg. If this seems like a lot, consider that this 1.5kg contains over 100 trillion bacteria! This number means that in a healthy human, microbial cells can outnumber “human” cells by a factor of 10 to 1: expressed in another way, over 90% of the cells that make up “me” are bacteria and other microbes! Mindboggling stuff, which might make you wonder “who actually am I?”
Making things even more interesting, the microbiome is highly individual (like a bacterial fingerprint!) and changes over time, responding to environmental factors, stress and diet. This finding sits well with the Chinese Medicine perspective that an individual’s state of health fluctuates over time and in relation to environment, emotions and lifestyle.
But these bacterial buddies of ours aren’t getting a free ride: the microbiome has many important roles in the mind-body, including the metabolism and assimilation of nutrients, immune regulation, brain development and behaviour2, so changes in bacterial population, diversity and relative colony sizes have a direct impact on health. Research into this area is relatively new, but already we are learning that the microbiome is closely linked to immune function. Imbalances of certain bacteria can lead to compromised immunity, and can also contribute to autoimmune conditions such as Crohn’s (in which the immune system is upregulated to attack the body itself). Some fascinating studies have revealed that while the human genes associated with Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) differ between European and East Asian populations, a deficiency of the same bacteria was implicated in both populations3: this hints at the vast potential of microbiome regulation in treating a broad range of currently unaddressed chronic and degenerative diseases.
Chinese Medicine knows that good digestion is at the root of good health
Though the microbiome is only recently being “discovered” by modern science, Chinese Medicine has recognized the fundamental importance of healthy digestion for thousands of years. In Chinese Medicine symbology, digestive function is allocated to the Spleen-Stomach and is represented by the element Earth, highlighting the grounding role of healthy digestion in optimal health. Indeed, the oldest surviving Chinese Medicine classical text* assigns digestion / Earth a central position amongst all the other organs and body systems, acknowledging the essential foundation that it provides.
In recognition of the pivotal role of digestion, Chinese Medicine places great focus on a healthy and individually appropriate diet. The father of modern Western Medicine, Hippocrates held a similar view, suggesting we “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. This sentiment has unfortunately been all but drowned out in modern medicine – much to our detriment, as the choices that we make several times daily have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing. Indeed researchers suggest that our ancestral microbiome is facing an extinction crisis as a result of the modern, refined diet4.
Are all bacteria “good”? Aren’t there any “baddies” in there?