Microbiome diversity and its impact on your health


Over the past year many articles have come to light linking microbiome health to overall health. Did you know that how often you get sick, seasonal allergies, diabetes, IBS, autism, autoimmune diseases and heart disease have all been tied back in some way or other to the microbiome? I’m not just talking about articles on the web, there are legit studies that are continuously confirming this information. 


What’s really fascinating is that even though this data is becoming more and more mainstream, most traditionally trained medical doctors still do not embrace this. They still reach first for the prescription meds to address the diagnosed issues. Divisions of Naturopathic medicine, however, have been deeply invested in the idea that all problems stem from the gut. Focusing on the root of the tree, if you will, has been their approach for decades. They teach patients the importance of foods and the role they play in gut health and most of their treatment protocols start with nutrition as a foundation. Not the typical nutritional recommendations that a registered dietician would give, but real education on the role of nutrients, both micro and macro, and the important role they play in health and disease abatement.


Today many people understand what a probiotic is and its becoming one of the more common supplements that people use with regularity. These can be prescription grade or over the counter products, they can also be found in fermented foods like sauerkraut and yogurt among others. The data that’s out on probiotics is robust and encouraging. Taking probiotics can help with digestive issues, improve immune health by getting sick less often or being able to recover quickly from an illness, and on and on. There are claims that they can improve acne prone skin and help with weight loss as well. So why doesn’t everyone that takes a probiotic supplement get to experience this panacea? There could be several reasons for this and the intention of this article is to dive into just one of these reasons today. Probiotic supplements and fermented food offer a variety of beneficial bacterial strains, some are well studied like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium longum while many others are not as well studied. In addition to the different strains and their proven benefits, most probiotic supplements are not colonizing the microbiome. In other words, they are just passing thru like the food we eat, they don’t help to regenerate the microbiota that may have been impacted by medications like antibiotics, birth control, proton pump inhibitors, psychiatric meds and cancer meds. 


I just finished an eye opening course with Dr. Jason Hawrelak - a probiotic researcher, educator and clinician. He’s been studying the microbiome since before it was cool, dating back to the late 90’s. His wealth of information is just simply profound. I have yet to come across anyone else like Dr. Hawrelak who actually studied the biome academically for a PhD and then went on to practice as a clinician. That’s what makes his information and findings clinically meaningful, he applies his findings in clinical practice allowing the scope of knowledge and application to be advanced.


I had several takeaways from this course and plan on writing about them separately. Staying true to my intention of this article I wanted to dig into why probiotics may be more or less beneficial depending on what strains and who’s taking them. It turns out, that most of the strains of probiotics out there aren’t heavily researched. There are a handful that are, but the vast majority of probiotics available on the market today are strains that are based off of other strains that have been studied and are believed to be of benefit. They may contain one well studied strain and 5 or more lesser known lesser studied strains. It’s like anything else in the supplement industry, you want to use reliable companies that test and publish their data. If you don’t, you just don’t know what you are getting. So, the first issue is that we may or may not be getting beneficial strains in our current probiotics. The next issue that needs to be more openly discussed is that probiotics are not able to repopulate the microbiome. They are transient which means they pass thru the GI system without setting up shop and colonizing the GI tract. Even though they don’t colonize they can still be of benefit because of the byproducts they create once consumed. This means that to have a benefit from probiotics they will need to be taken continuously, once you stop taking them the benefits you experience may also stop. This information isn’t new, however, the average consumer may not know this. So what can we do to colonize our microbiome and reap more benefit from a robust microbial diversity? That’s easy, just feed the microbiome the constituents that build and colonize. 


To get a better handle on your unique diversity I recommend microbiome diversity testing. UBIOME is a company that offers this service to consumers without a Dr’s order and without the hefty price tag. What’s also really unique about this company is the multi kit option they sell. This will allow you to test your microbiome and then make adjustments based on your needs to increase diversity. Then you will perform a re-test and track how your diversity changes once you implement changes in diet and other areas that can help shift the diversity to the more plentiful side. Why would you want a move diverse microbiome? One thing is for sure, science is still a long way off from understanding everything it needs to fully explain how the microbiome functions. This being said, science does understand that more diversity equates to better health outcomes. So they may not yet understand all the “why’s” to this question they do understand enough to target diversity as a goal to work towards.


Dr. Hawrelak has done some great case studies and there’s additional studies to support the use of things like lactulose, partially hydrolyzed guar gum and Bimuno, another prebiotic, among other things to help feed the beneficial strains of bacteria that will in the end improve our diversity scores, resulting in a more robust microbiome.


Getting a handle on your diversity score and assessing what can help build your diversity is where everyone should start. If your wondering who might have a sub-par diversity, that’s easy to answer, almost everyone does! Stress, poor food choices, antibiotics, birth control, psychiatric meds and even glyphosate have been linked to reducing the beneficial bacteria in our microbiome. Back to the original point of this article, taking a simple probiotic won’t do much to change your diversity score, and that may in fact be a reason why one person notices a benefit from taking it while the next person sees no difference. Other factors play a more important role and the key takeaway here is that focus needs to be put on building the diversity and not putting a bandaid on by only taking a probiotic.


Take your health into your own hands!