Knowledge about the microbiome has come a long way since the 1990s. Yogurt sales took off then, and acidophilus became a household word. If you’re eating well, moving, restoring – the three pillars to support the microbiome – you may wonder, do I need probiotics, too? That’s a judgment call, of course. All the same, with probiotics becoming ever popular, it can be confusing to know, Do I or don’t I need to take probiotics?
We need daily wellbeing practices of eating well, moving, and restoring to nourish not only our body but our microbiome. Probiotics add to eating well. And that’s important, especially in the stress of today’s world, which we’ll get to shortly.
Microbes are fascinating. They sense one another. An abundance of friendly microbes sensing one another encourages the proliferation of more of those friendly microbes. Adding beneficial microbes has exponential effects on existing friendly microbes. They crowd out others that may not be as healthful and nurture friendly microbial abundance.
Let’s back up a bit, though, and talk about what probiotics are.
Probiotics are friendly microbes that add diversity and abundance to your existing microbiota.
Friendly microbes grow everywhere and include bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes that aren’t household words, like archaea. Archaea are similar to bacteria, but their cell structure is different.
Prebiotics are food for probiotics.
Prebiotics are plant fibers or complex sugars found in plants that the human body can’t digest, but microbes can. Together, microbes and plant fibers work in the gut to enrich the microbiome and help the body. . .
• Digest and absorb nutrients,
• Produce and regulate hormones (sex hormones, feel-good hormones, stress hormones, etc.),
• Prime and regulate the immune system, and keep inflammation in check,
• Nurture healthy metabolism,
• Foster gut health and a strong intestinal lining so that what belongs in the gut stays in there,
• Synthesize collagen and hydrate the skin,
• And countless other functions.
A combination probiotic–prebiotic is called a synbiotic.
A multi-strain synbiotic is the whole package in one capsule: friendly microbes and food for them to proliferate.
Synbiotics add abundance and diversity to the existing microflora to bring about all the benefits I listed above.
When I think about the importance of practicing wellbeing, I always come back to the issue of stress. Stress puts a punctuation mark on the need for care. When we talk about stress during the menopause transition and afterward, we can see three interlinking pillars. These are:
- The stress of the menopause transition and aging, which asks the body to adapt.
- The stress of modern life.
- The stress on the planet.
The Stress of Menopause and Aging
The menopause transition is a stress on the body. That doesn’t mean it’s a problem. It is a dramatic shift that asks the body to adapt. The menopause transition also affects the microbiome, which we explored earlier in this series. It becomes less diverse and less abundant. That puts stress on all the functions the microbiome otherwise supports. Together, these age-related stresses on the microbiome and its functions provide a rationale for adding a well-formulated synbiotic to our wellbeing practices. Microbial abundance and diversity in the gut can hush the stress of the menopause transition and support healthy aging.
The Stress of Modern Life
The rush and worry of modern life claim so much of our daily existence. There always seems to be more to do in a day than the hours we have in it. Technologies promise to make our lives easier. Many now question that proposition. We’re constantly plugged in and ever available through devices. It seems safe to say, there are blessings and burdens to just about every aspect of life as we know it. The question I always come back to is: What does the body need? This question keeps us close to our whole self and reminds us that we are biological, not technological.
Over the years, I’ve included microbiota when I think about what the body needs – the two act as one. In modern life, this quiet but vital life partner needs our care.
When we’ve pushed too hard or been too hard pushed, a plentiful microbiota can help us stay apace, keep the gut fit, and support the body and our mood while we work to bring balance.
At no time has this been truer in our lifetime than during the sudden shifts brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. A well-prepared multi-strain synbiotic and fermented foods like kraut, kimchi, and miso are wonderful ways to add diversity and abundance to the microbiota, as is eating organic foods prepared fresh.
The Stress on the Planet
Now comes the news that’s harder to control personally. Modern life is putting extreme stress on the planet in the forms of environmental toxicity and environmental degradation. Those stressors directly impact our microbiome and the microbiomes of the foods we eat.
Exposure to industrial and large-scale agricultural contaminants is now a reality we have to live with. Environmental toxicity exacts stress on the body. It exposes us to carcinogenic compounds, heavy metals, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and run-off from pharmaceuticals, especially antibiotics. All these have adverse effects on the microbiome. It’s not hard to imagine that residue from pesticides sprayed on farm crops will be doomsday on an otherwise flourishing microbiota in our gut. The same is true about antibiotics.
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not against antibiotics when they are needed. Antibiotics have saved countless lives, including my own. At the same time, they’re way overused. Animal feedlots use antibiotics prophylactically because the environments in which those animals exist are so heartbreakingly foul. Their excrement contains antibiotic residue that runs off and leaches into waterways. Antibiotics are also overused in modern medicine. Countless prescriptions are written for illnesses, the cause of which was never shown to be bacterial. Human excrement also ends up in water. Small but not insignificant amounts of these antibiotics end up in our drinking water and, therefore, our bodies.
Antibiotics are not very selective. Maybe you’ve heard the term “broad-spectrum antibiotic.” They’re a shot-gun approach to illness. They eradicate large swaths of microbe communities in our guts while they go about scouring for pathogens, making hell across the body. In an unpolluted world, these issues would not be a concern. They are now, increasingly so.
Feeding the microbiome with probiotics offsets the harmful effects of environmental toxicity.
What’s extraordinary about today’s exposure to heavy metals and many chemical compounds is that a flourishing microbiota can reduce tissue exposure to these toxins. Gut microbes can sequester heavy metals so that they don’t make their way into bodily tissues. They travel through the bowel instead and are eventually excreted. Probiotics can support this process because you’re adding friendly microbes that help clear toxins. This does not mean friendly microbes prevent heavy metals from slipping into tissues. It means they can reduce tissue exposure. Every little bit helps in an increasingly stressed world.
Environmental Degradation exacts a toll on the Earth in ways that we are only beginning to glimpse. By degradation, I mean forest and mountaintop clearing, massive soil erosion, and large-scale agriculture soil depletion. Of course, there are other degradation forces affecting life on Earth. But the clearing away and erosion of the Earth’s “biologically excited layer” washes away the microbial life that sustains not only us, but every plant that grows from that layer.
Conventional agriculture’s use of chemicals and pesticides effectively sterilizes soil. Plants need a rich soil microbiome to be healthy and nutrient-dense. Soil microbes do the same job in plants that they do in our bodies. They extract nutrients, support plant immunity to pests and extreme weather conditions, and produce signals that help guide plants’ growth. Plants grown in microbe-depleted soil have fewer nutrients than plants grown in microbe-rich soil.
There is much more to say about this in a later series. Most importantly, all hope is not lost. To the point about probiotics: feeding our microbiome with probiotics can offset these degradation effects. Multi-strain synbiotics help our bodies extract the greatest amount of nutrition from the foods we eat.
Gateway to Wellbeing
- What sensations, images, words, or reflections stir as you read about feeding the microbiome with synbiotics and the three pillars of stress?
- Here, at the end of a five-part series, what questions linger about . . .
a. your microbiome and body,
b. microbiome, the menopause transition, and aging,
c. wellbeing practices and partnering with your microbiome,
d. stressors that challenge and even rob the microbiome,
e. and synbiotics?