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How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life

How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life

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What’s good for the microbiome is good for the body

We often think of the human body as made of human cells, but it’s time to revise that perspective. As it turns out, the number of microbial cells in our bodies exceeds the number of human cells.[1],[2] We have ignored them far too long.

Our microbial inhabitants influence virtually every aspect of our health, providing essential digestive, metabolic, physiologic, immune, and detoxification functions.[3],[4]

Unfortunately, medications that are designed to alleviate human ailments, including antibiotics and NSAIDs, often cause serious harm to the microbiome.[4],[5] Additional damage is caused by Western diets, which are typically high in fat, sugar and processed foods, and low in fiber.[6],[7]

Western diets trigger a loss of beneficial microbes in the gut, along with a proliferation of pathogenic species. This condition (dysbiosis) is associated with a plethora of diseases, including allergies, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, and even neuropsychiatric disorders.[3]

Professor Rodney Dietert of Cornell University argues that it’s time to put the microbiome front and center in human healthcare.[4] If we can protect the microbiome from harm, and support friendly microbes with better nutrition, we can dramatically increase our overall health. This is the subject of the 2016 book titled The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life.[8]

As a good example of this principle, a healthy microbiome helps defend against environmental toxins such as heavy metals (lead, cadmium, arsenic) found in food and water. A damaged microbiome is less capable of doing its job, and exposes the rest of the body to higher levels of these chemicals. If we support microbial health, we can help shield the whole body against toxic exposures.

The microbiome is the first line of defense against toxins

A healthy microbiome facilitates the elimination of heavy metals.

Humans are continuously exposed to toxic chemicals in our environment, which can accumulate in our bodies over time. Lead (Pb), cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg), and arsenic (As) are among the top 10 pollutants of global health concern.[9] Even without a specific public health crisis, such as the Flint, Michigan water crisis in which the water supply was contaminated with Pb, it is nearly impossible to avoid heavy metals.[10],[11]

Pb has an array of harmful effects in children and adults, including neurological and immune dysfunction. The kidney and liver, as well as the vascular and reproductive systems, are also targets of lead (Pb) toxicity.[12]

Since oral ingestion is one of the main routes of Pb exposure, the gut microbiome is the first line of defense against heavy metals.[13] A healthy microbiome reduces the absorption of heavy metals so they can be eliminated in the stool.[14]

If the microbiome is damaged, for example due to antibiotics, it is less capable of carrying out this critical task. This was shown in a landmark study in which mice were treated with a broad-spectrum antibiotic cocktail, which destroyed their gut microbiota.[15] The mice were then exposed to Pb for three consecutive days. The antibiotic-treated mice excreted less Pb in the feces, and had higher Pb levels in the blood and primary organs than mice with an intact microbiome.

Similarly, arsenic decontamination depends on an intact microbiome, and is disrupted by antibiotics.[16],[17] The results highlight the need to protect our microbes from harm.

Human studies also have shown that a commensal microbe known as Faecalibacterium prausnitzii (F. prausnitzii) is easily destroyed by antibiotics.[18] In animals exposed to Pb or As, the oral administration of F. prausnitzii lowered the heavy metal levels in the body and improved survival.[15],[16]

By supporting the growth of beneficial species through better nutrition, and preventing microbial damage from medications and poor diets, we can reduce the effects of environmental toxins on the whole body.

Probiotics aid in heavy metal detoxification

Probiotics may help reduce the quantity of heavy metals absorbed from food and water.

Probiotic supplementation may aid in detoxification by improving the microbiome and intestinal barrier.[12],[19],[20],[21] Numerous animal studies have shown that Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus plantarum strains can help eliminate heavy metals from the body.[15],[22],[23],[24],[25],[26],[27]

Lactobacillus species also strengthen the intestinal barrier, thereby reducing the absorption of environmental toxins into the bloodstream, liver, brain and other organs.[28],[29],[30],[31] Lactobacillus rhamnosus may be particularly effective in this regard.

In a pilot study, the daily consumption of a yogurt containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus reduced the accumulation of heavy metals in a group of Tanzanian women living in a contaminated area.[32] The authors concluded that the use of probiotics may help reduce the quantity of heavy metals absorbed from food and water in contaminated regions of the world.

Nutritional strategies to support the microbiome

High-fiber diets have been demonstrated to reduce heavy metal levels in the body.

Modern lifestyles, specifically Western diets, have contributed to a depletion of friendly microbes.[33],[34] This condition leaves us more susceptible to insults such as environmental toxins, and exacerbates chronic diseases.

Along with probiotics, fermented foods and high-fiber diets help build a strong microbiome.[35],[36] Plant-based diets that contain plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, and whole grains, such as the Mediterranean diet, boost the growth of beneficial bacteria – including those implicated in detoxifying the body.[37]

High-fiber diets have been demonstrated to reduce heavy metal levels in the body.[38],[39],[40] A recent study showed that greater plant food intakes are associated with lower cadmium body burdens in middle-aged adults.[41]

Supplemental “prebiotic” fibers can also help fill dietary fiber gaps. A relatively new fiber supplement known as modified citrus pectin (MCP), prepared from the peel and pulp of citrus fruits, has been getting high marks.

Remarkably, MCP not only promotes the growth of beneficial microbes, it also binds heavy metals in the gastrointestinal tract.[42],[43],[44],[45] In clinical studies, MCP consumption was shown to help eliminate lead and other heavy metals, even in subjects with a ‘normal’ body burden.[46],[47],[48],[49]


By protecting the microbiome against known harms, we may reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

A healthy microbiota helps detoxify heavy metals and other environmental contaminants found in food and water, but it is inevitably damaged in the process. A microbiome that is damaged, either due to toxins, medications, or poor diets, is less capable of protecting us from toxins and other harms.

The “Microbiome First” paradigm, which is being advanced by many scientists, encourages the use of nutritional strategies to support the microbiome. By protecting the microbiome against known harms, we may even reduce the risk of chronic diseases – a worthy goal for the 21st century.

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The information provided is for educational purposes only. Consult your physician or healthcare provider if you have specific questions before instituting any changes in your daily lifestyle including changes in diet, exercise, and supplement use.

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