The Gut Microbiome and chronic illness


I’ve been working with someone recently who has been suffering with a number of chronic health issues. He is not alone. There are increasing numbers of people in today’s society who suffer from an ever-increasing range of chronic health issues. Defined as a condition that lasts for more than 3 months, chronic illness includes obesity, diabetes, allergies, heart disease, kidney disease, alzheimer’s, cancer and arthritis. These conditions are linked to inflammation and efficacy of our immune system which is inexorably linked to our gut microbiome and its reduced species diversity.

The 2014-15 National Health Survey indicated that 50% of all Australians had a chronic health issue and this rose to 60% in the 65 year-old bracket. The survey found that chronic conditions accounted for around 9 in every 10 deaths in Australia in 2015. This survey was based on self-reporting and so the figures might be even higher as people fail to understand that they actually have a condition, as their symptoms are so minor. A friend recently told me he was fit and healthy, dismissing the psoriasis I noticed as ‘nothing’.  Psoriasis is an inflammatory autoimmune condition.

The considerable interest and number of recent research on the microbiome, show that in the modern world our diet and environmental exposure to microbes is severely limited. Whilst our diet might be a little more diverse than the average slum dwelling Indian, our exposure to microbes from the environment is not. However it is generally understood that in order to encourage a healthy, diverse microbiome we need to consume a healthy, balanced and diverse diet.  However the modern diet is not diverse and consequently the species diversity of our microbiome is lacking. The much studied Hadza tribes of Tanzania eat a rich variety of foods also have higher levels of microbial diversity and biodiversity.  Our modern diet is not healthy or balanced meaning the number of species is low and the many functions of a healthy microbiome, like breaking down foods into more useful nutrients, producing chemicals that act as neurotransmitters and regulating the immune system are not fulfilled as effectively as they might be.  Moreover the colonisation by harmful bacteria and viruses is facilitated instead of opposed.

So the loss of species diversity in the gut is associated with increased chronic health issues. Dysbiosis refers to an imbalance in the species of the microbiome, an increase in the more harmful with a reduction in the beneficial bacteria.  The balance and composition of microbes in the gut microbiota changes regularly. Probiotics and fibre rich foods encourage the beneficial bacteria. Processed foods and sugar rich foods encourage the less desirable microbes, as does exposure to environmental toxins. The composition of the gut microbiota changes with diet, age, stress levels and environment.

Manipulating the gut microbiota will be the future of managing chronic illness.

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