Your Gut Is As Unique As Your Fingerprint

We all know that no one, not even identical twins, share the same fingerprint. But, did you also know that every person’s gut is uniquely their own? No two gut microbiomes are the same. Because bacteria are everywhere and are undergoing changes on a constant basis, there is no way that two people can perfectly mimic the exact experience that another has as they move through their day. Surfaces, breezes, contacts with others, and even our moment-to-moment changes in mood all result in subtle changes in the bacteria inside of us.

Baby Bacteria

The significance of this finding lies in the discoveries of the profound ways that our unique bacterial mix shapes our thinking, our feeling, our functioning, and our overall health. Scientists have discovered that this health influence begins much earlier and lasts much longer than we had ever imagined. We are learning that the bacteria that establishes themselves in our gut in the first weeks of life have a lasting impact on our vulnerability to illness over the rest of our lives! Recent research suggests that adding together the adult’s genetics, diet, lifestyle, living environment, and physiology makes up only 30% of the variation in an individual’s gut microbiome. Much of the remaining 70% is traceable to the unique mix of bacteria we carry within us. One research track being explored is that in the first days of life, the bacteria that get established first, colonize the gut in ways that continue to impact how other bacteria, including illness-causing bacteria, can get established later. When the baby’s first bacterial colonists are healthy and beneficial to the infant’s health, the odds are greater that he or she will be better able to remain healthy, more resilient when facing illness threats, and more effective at maintaining the thriving, diverse, and active microbiome we need to support whole health throughout our lives.

Upsetting the Apple Cart

This line of thinking isn’t all that surprising. The process of developing a cooperative (commensal) relationship with our gut microbiome has been fine-tuned for millions of years. The better we do, the better the bacteria do. And, the more vibrant our bacterial health, the more our health benefits in countless ways. But, it is also obvious that we are far from perfect at remaining healthy. In fact, the rapid rise in inflammatory diseases shows just how vulnerable this two-way relationship between our bacteria and our overall health is. IBS, is just one of many examples of conditions that are traceable to imbalances in body-bacterial relationships.   Examples of practices that damage this finely-tuned gut-brain-microbiome balance include:
  • Overuse of medications that affect microbiomic health (e.g., antibiotics) when ill
  • Over-consumption of foods that have had their natural nutritional benefits removed and their bacterial contents altered through industrial over-processing (i.e., processed foods, over-feeding of antibiotics to animals we consume)
  • Creation of a modern society that often results in more chronic stress - compromising the critical microbiological communication that integrates and coordinates our immune system, our gut bacteria, and our gut wall, which serves as the front line defender of our body’s health
  • Cultivation of habits that disconnect us from life’s natural rhythms of sleep, work, rest, play, and connection ( e.g., social media, staying up late, too much time indoors, eating foods out-of-sync with the local season)

Action Steps

Knowing that only 30% of a person’s gut microbiome is determined by diet, lifestyle, and several other factors, while the rest of what impacts the microbiome is established very early in life could leave people with the wrong impression. Early life does matter when it comes to establishing a good and healthy gut foundation. But, the important takeaway is that what we were given at birth is subject to change later, so long as we adopt the kind of health-positive practices that help us keep realigning the necessary elements that support gut-brain-microbiome balance over the course of our days. In turn, we can, with continued practice, regain the radiant health upon which joyful living rests. Here are practical steps you can take to orient yourself in that direction. Take advantage of evolution’s lessons. Whole foods remain the best pre- and probiotics. Learn to shop for foods rich in the kinds of vitamin, mineral, and healthy-bacterial balance-promoting foods (Mediterranean and Paleo Diets do this quite well for many people.). Adopt timeless lifestyle habits that are fundamental to maintaining good health and that have the added benefit of being highly anti-inflammatory. These include:
  1. Obtaining at least 7-hours of sleep each night
  2. Increasing movement and exercise into your day, every day
  3. Seek mental challenges, but balance them with regular playtime and general relaxation time
  4. Seek connection. The benefits of intimate social connections for long-term brain health (see my book, Staying Sharp) are well-established. The benefits of social connections to gut health and general physical/emotional health are being established, too.
  5. Build private, self-reflective time into your weekly routine. If you don’t get to know your deeper thoughts, yearnings, and dreams better, they cannot serve as the road map to living your life that they are meant to be. And, without this, the rate of anxiety, depression, and general life distress skyrocket.
When your life does include illness patterns like IBS, shift your focus from just eliminating the symptoms to building adaptive, flexible, and resilient health. After all, symptoms are often just a signal of something that is off farther “upstream.” Get appropriate consultation about how to treat your illness condition, but make sure that in designing the treatment process that you look beyond treating just the symptoms. Lifestyle medicine, as outlined in the previous bullet points takes you farther faster and helps you stay there longer. Enjoy your journey...