Charles Darwin, one of the early pioneers of the theory of evolution, has had his work paraphrased by stating that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.  This is an important distinction for those who misattribute the concept of “survival of the fittest” as one of constant struggle and conflict.  


Although there are systems in the human body that are by nature hypervigilant (namely the military-like workings of the immune system) there are far more instances of cooperation that define our ability to adapt to change.  The symbiotic relationship with the multitude of flora throughout our digestive tract is the literal and figurative embodiment of survival through cooperation.


Known collectively as the microbiome, this reservoir of beneficial bacteria and yeast strains covers our skin and coats our digestive tract. They are thought to outnumber our bodies’ cells by a ratio of ten to one.  We start off with limited exposure to microbes in the womb and become significantly inoculated by our mother’s flora in the birth canal just prior to our appearance in the world.  This event plays a key role in defining our health for the rest of our lives.  Postpartum, we should be supplementing our internal gut flora through probiotic-rich fermented foods, but our initial flora fingerprint will not deviate much save for medical intervention.


One of those interventions are c-section births which denies the infant the lion’s share of gut flora through the bypassing of the birth canal.  The rich prebiotic factors within breast milk, coupled with the flora present on and around the mother’s nipple will gradually inoculate the baby, though the long-term effect of not having received the initial birthing dose of flora is yet unknown.


Another emerging explanation for the disruption of the gut microbiome is the ingestion of pesticides, particularly glyphosate (also known as roundup); used liberally in the growing of certain genetically modified crops that are altered to be resistant to the pesticide.  These plants, known as roundup-ready crops, receive copious amounts of glyphosate.  Research has documented glyphosate residues in the urine of humans and livestock clearly indicating that the gastrointestinal tract is exposed to the pesticide applied to these plants long after harvest.  The current position of the biotech industries is that the breakdown of glyphosate renders it harmless to human cells, however some research suggests that pesticides like glyphosate do pose a risk to the bacteria of the mammalian gut.  In light of this evidence, a precautionary stance would be to avoid conventionally grown produce and choose organic varieties as much as possible.


Antibiotics drugs, and the lack of education given to patients about taking probiotics or eating probiotic-rich foods while on these drugs, shifts the balance of gut flora towards pathogenic species, particularly strains of yeast that are unaffected by antibiotics.  Although life-saving in certain instances, these medical interventions put the body at a certain disadvantage, the fallout of which include digestive problems and yeast infections.  They create what we call in Chinese medicine a deficiency in Spleen Qi.  


In traditional Chinese medicine, the function of all the digestive organs is attributed to the Spleen energetic, or Spleen Qi.  Think of the term Spleen Qi as a placeholder for all the microscopic actions that take place to break down and absorb food.  Among these, the role of the microbiome is critical.  Our body produces stomach acid, enzymes, bile, etc., but if our intestines were sterile, we would be dead in no time.


The flora composing the microbiome processes much of the food we eat, making it readily available for absorption.  Their presence also marks our first line of defense from pathogenic microbes that come in through the alimentary canal.  Even more fascinating is to consider our symbiotic relationship with humans providing a home for these gut bugs while they let us borrow their genetics.  The human genome project resulted in discovering that humans have a mere 20,500 genes while by comparison rice has more than 46,000.  It might just turn out that the we have to factor the genetic action of all the microflora in our guts to get a true sense of the total gene activity of mammals.  If this were true, it points to a coevolution where we are genetically dependent on these organisms for proper growth and development.


When a patient is diagnosed with a deficiency of Spleen Qi, typical symptoms include gas, bloating, fatigue, among many other variants of indigestion – all functional problems.  I have often thought (having many other examples of their genius) that what the ancient Chinese doctors were describing with the term Spleen Qi is predominantly the collective action of the gut flora.  What they lacked in microbiology they made up for with keen observation and an awareness of functional problems when the structures seemed otherwise healthy. 


I predict it won’t be long before Western medicine shares this view, ultimately resulting in classifying the microbiome as an organ in and of itself.  Although it is possible to live without part of your lung or liver, it too is possible to live with a hypofunction microbiome.  But to live well, we owe it to ourselves to become intestinal gardeners and feed those little critters that are a symbiotic part of ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *