Though the science is only about three hundred years old, the more we learn about the gut and its bacterial balance, or microbiome, the more we realize its importance in, well, everything. Deemed our “second brain”, seventy percent of our immune system lives in our gut, which works hand in hand with our brain, sending signals and directives, among a host of other functions. It turns out it’s not only imperative to establish it from the onset, but to establish it well. Often, we’re told not to “sweat the small stuff,” but in gut health, it might just be the smallest stuff that matters most.
Born into a Bavarian confectioner family, gut health expert and gastroenterologist, Dr. Emeran Mayer, was expected to take over his family’s business. Instead, a gut feeling led him to an illustrious career at the University of California, Los Angeles, spanning forty years to date. I’ve waited months for this interview and I’m nervous as I initiate our conversation. Dr. Mayer sets me at ease with his gentle disposition. He’s clearly passionate about his subject matter, which he demonstrates in his book, “The Mind-Gut Connection”.
Early research suggests that the development of our gut microbiome commences in utero. During pregnancy, a mother’s gut tailors ‘gut bugs’ specifically for her baby, which are then passed to infants during their trip through the birth canal.This voyage has been called the “bacterial rite of passage” and it’s the start of everything. Unromantically, it seems like a NASCAR race. Flags are waved and bacteria rushes to the newborn to see which can initiate its gut microbiome, shaping it for life.
According to Dr. Mayer, a child’s microbiome is established during their first three to five years. Subsequently, it serves as a blueprint for life and will decide if we’re sick or healthy, filled with energy or the lack thereof. It helps to determine whether we develop conditions like asthma, allergies, autoimmune diseases, mental health conditions and even neurodegenerative diseases later in life. Astoundingly, a gut microbiome can be passed down through generations.
We’re all told to stress less, especially when pregnant. Stress contributes to low grade inflammation, which is reported to be responsible for a higher instance of many chronic conditions. Mayer likens our gut-brain connection to a circuit. “Our gut is a mirror image of our emotions,” he says. “We’ve all focused on the mode of delivery, but people have not talked as much about what happens in the pregnant mother both in terms of psychological stress, but also in terms of dietary stress. Low grade inflammation [crosses] the placenta and gets into the fetus, [affecting] brain development in the unborn. So, by the time the baby enters the world through the birth canal and gets the mother’s compromised microbiome, [the infant] already has changes in the brain that are not optimal.”
Breastfeeding, when possible, aids the development of the microbiome and contributes to a larger brain over time. While the quality of a mother’s milk seems to be a direct reflection of diet, breast milk is programmed specifically for the newborn. A molecule called oligosaccharides is the third largest component in human breast milk, yet is unable to be digested by the human gut. According to Dr. Mayer, each mother has a unique set of these molecules. Oligosaccharides enter the baby’s large intestine, where the microbes break them down, literally feeding the infant’s gut. “[They’re] one of the most important factors in the development in the infant’s microbiome,” the doctor explains.
Environment & Food.
While environment, family members and pets contribute to developing microbiomes, antibiotic use (or lack thereof,) is pivotal as well. By the age of five, American children have been exposed to multiple rounds of antibiotics. Prophylactic use in pregnant mothers, even a one-time dose according to Mayer, has negative effects. “When they were invented, it wasn’t [considered] that, along with being life-saving medications, they kill bad bacteria, they also harm good [gut] bacteria.”
Dr. Mayer reminds us that, although we are highly skilled and knowledgeable in many areas, we’ve lost our gut instincts when it comes to eating. It’s nearly impossible to have high quality food that is convenient, fast and cheap. We try to have it all, but an overwhelming number of Americans currently find themselves overweight, sick and prediabetic. We’ve removed the fiber in food, injecting it with sugar instead. Today, most of our food is digested in our small intestine. Very little makes it down to feed the good bacteria in our large intestine. According to Mayer, our microbes are starving.
Sadly, nearly thirty percent of bacterial species that once dwelled in our gut are no longer there. Like the animals that have gone extinct, so too have these helpful gut bugs. In all stages of life, however, gut balance can be enhanced or restored. Changes in diet, sleep, healthy sunlight exposure, fermented foods, physical activity and probiotics are all things likely to help reshape our microbiome. Try this delicious recipe using miso (which is fermented!).
Miso Roasted Salmon
1 pound wild caught salmon (tip: Sockeye salmon cannot be farm raised)
2 tablespoons red miso paste
2 tablespoons sake
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon honey
Mix all ingredients together to marinade salmon.
Place salmon in marinade and let soak for 6-12 hours.
Grill or bake for 25 minutes, broiling for the last 2 minutes, if desired.
Garnish with sliced green onions and serve.