Bacteria… When you roll this word around in your mind what is your initial reaction? Maybe you have the urge to go wash your hands or tap into your inner child and shout ‘Yuck!’. In today’s society this word has a negative, even dirty, connotation.
Bacteria gets a bad rep because we usually only focus on one side of the story, those harmful bacteria lurking under toilet seats and in expired food. What if I were to tell you that you are more made up of bacteria than ‘human cells’? Believe it or not, we have over 10x more microbial cells (microbes are single celled organisms in which bacteria are included) than human cells.
I’ve got another quick question for you: Which ecosystem has more diversity, the Amazon rainforest or your gut? Drum roll please….your gut! The bacteria and fungi in our gut constructs our microbiota (often interchanged with the word microbiome which refers more to the genes associated with our gut bacteria), an astoundingly diverse collection of different bacteria and organisms that are vital to our health.
The ecosystem in our gut requires delicate balance, just like the rainforest. Imagine too many jaguars roaming around the rainforest. The balance of the ecosystem would be stressed trying to support that many predators. A domino effect would occur and many species would become threatened as a result, threatening the overall ecosystem as well. Similarly we must strive to maintain balance within our microbiota in order to maintain the efficiency of our overall health. When too much of one species of bacteria is present it can cause disease that extends well beyond our guts.
The Bacteria You Likely Have Too Much Of
Let’s take the bacteria candida for example (technically a fungus or yeast but let’s call it bacteria to simplify things). Candida overgrowth is one of the most common afflictions in the western worldi. Some estimates project that over 70% of people have too much of this bacteria in their gutsii. Do you ever have sugar cravings? Do you ever feel that even after eating a slice of cake you want more ice cream, or a brownie, eating until you physically feel the discomfort in your stomach? Candida feeds off sugar. Recall the post about the ‘second brain’ in our guts, the enteric nervous system? Candida’s need for sugar causes signals to be sent to the brain requesting more sugar, more fuel for the candida to grow. When there is too much of this type of bacteria in our system it sabotages our brain, resulting in those persistent sugar cravings that are all too easy to give in to (another slice of cake please, add the ice cream!).
We can imagine how this creates a domino effect of change to the ecosystem of our body as a whole. Too much sugar intake leads to spikes and drops in our energy levels, effects our moods, can lead to a variety of disease like diabetes, and fuels even greater dependence on sugary foods (both processed and natural). If candida is kept in balance then it is just another part of the overall ecosystem, like the jaguar in the forest. It actually plays an important role in digestion and the absorption of nutrients when levels are properly maintained. When candida overgrowth occurs it can lead to yeast infections, fatigue, mood swings, impotence, diarrhea and constipation, and many other side effects we’d all like to avoidiii! Let a species of bacteria grow rampant and destruction occurs!
Bacteria Has Our Backs From Birth Onwards
Let’s stop focusing on all of the harmful bacteria and shed some light on the beneficial bacteria that helps to sustain us! From the moment we are introduced to the world outside of our mother’s womb we are introduced to a whole variety of healthy bacteria. During childbirth, the fluid from our mother’s birth canal is filled with bacteria that can help us greatly in our growth. In fact, studies have shown that children born through a Cesarian Section (where an incision is made in the abdomen and the child is pulled out rather than delivered naturally through the birth canal) have a significant increase in the risk of developing medical conditions such as asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and diabetesiv. This good bacteria is a gift from mother to child during birth and is believed to help create the foundation for our immunity as we develop. Nowadays in the United States over 1/3 of births are via C-Section. (In many cases this procedure is necessary due to birth complications but oftentimes it is opted for as a less painful delivery alternative.)
Following the progression of a child from the moment of birth is a tendency towards over-sterilization of kids’ environments. How many times have you heard a parent or caretaker telling a child ‘Don’t play in the mud!’, ‘Take that out of your mouth!’, or ‘Go wash your hands!’? Natural soap has been replaced with antibacterial soap claiming to eliminate 99.99% of bacteria. There is no distinguishing between good and bad bacteria, let’s kill them all! Many scientists believe that this over-sterilization in society, especially for kids whose immune systems are in development, is actually increasing the risk of diseases and conditions developing as we age. Many diseases are on the rise, possibly due to our altering of natural foods (ahem GMOs), heavy consumption of refined food products, and elimination of our exposure to bacteria.
The Yogic Diet: Creating Balance or Imbalance
Adopting a more yogic diet can help to restore balance to the ecosystem of your gut. The imperative word here is can as too much of anything can cause imbalance. If you were to replace all meat in your diet with fruits you might create imbalance in the opposite direction, ingesting too much sugar that once again disrupts the body’s ecosystem. Cutting meat out of your diet, or ensuring that you don’t over-consume meat, may be highly beneficial for many people and provide an increase in energy, contrary to popular belief that it will leave you feeling drained. The thought ‘If the plate doesn’t have meat it’s not a meal’ is outdated and a very unhealthy mindset. We can obtain protein and vital minerals from a wide variety of sources with differing degrees of prana. In my opinion the way that yoga can help restore balance to your diet is by increasing your awareness of what you are putting into your body. In the words of my friend Claire, the mindful meat eater and the unconscious vegetarian have a lot to learn from one another.
We often hear the word prana in our asana or pranayama classes referring to the vital energy imbued in our breath. Prana involves much more than the air we breathe, it is in everything that we are taking into our bodies. There is prana in everything that we eat and drink. When we become more mindful of our diets we tend to eat foods that are richer in prana, such as organic foods, rather than resorting to microwaved meals and refined or manufactured products. Begin to become aware of how you feel after eating certain foods and you’ll find that your gut is in constant communication. Treat your gut the way it wants to be treated and it will treat you the way you want to be treated. The golden rule applies to self care as well!
Our bodies are always striving towards homeostasis, finding a state of balance. In yoga we focus on finding balance in many different senses of the word. In fighting a war against all bacteria we are throwing off the balance of the fragile ecosystem that accounts for over 90% of the cells in our bodies! By over-consuming foods that aren’t good for us we are throwing off our body’s homeostasis!
The first step to finding balance is being aware of the habits that are throwing you out of balance. Begin to listen more to your gut. Become more mindful of your eating habits. Throw away that old notion that bacteria necessitates something dirty or yucky. Every society has people looking to help you and people looking to potentially exploit you. It only makes sense to surround yourself with helpful people looking to support you. Do the same with your body and treat it in a way that those helpful bacteria can support you. Restoring balance into your internal ecosystem is a conscious decision made every day. Become more conscious and you might find greater balance in many aspects of your life and reduce your risk of disease.
Who wants to mud fight!?!
iThere’s a simple way to check if candida overgrowth is present in your gut. When you wake up, before brushing your teeth or drinking water spit a few times into a glass. If your spit is milky and floats about in the water, it is an indication that you may have too much candida in your system. http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-8376/10-signs-you-have-candida-overgrowth-what-to-do-about-it.html
iiThis research was conducted by Rice University. “Biologists ID Defense Mechanism of Leading Fungal Pathogen.” EurekAlert!