Body and Mind

Trust Your Gut

Why the new microbiome craze has everyone looking inward.

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YESTERDAY AT THE grocery store, my daughter threw a handful of Gutzy prebiotic smoothie pouches into our cart. While she thought the food purported to boost confidence (a reasonable misinterpretation of the name), I didn’t make her take them out. Everywhere I turn lately, it seems gut health is claiming to not only improve overall health, but even cure long-standing maladies. My Instagram feed would have me believe that everything from my low mood to skin breakouts to my pants seeming to shrink overnight (spoiler: it’s not the pants) can be cured with the right bacteria-boosting supplement or diet.

Indeed, the rapidly growing digestive health market is forecasted to reach 71.95 billion by 2027, according to Fortune Business Insights. Even Kellogg’s is maximizing this gut-health focus, with a new VR game called the “Gut Bacterial Reef” where players take a deep dive into the human microbiome — the collection of (primarily) bacteria, viruses, and fungi commingling in your gut and intestines — armed with fiber-rich cereals to boost the growth of healthy bacteria.

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Everyone’s microbiome is unique. What is universal is the fact that the genes that make us functioning humans are composed not only of our human DNA, but equally the DNA of the microbes we play host to. Originally thought to outnumber human genes nine to one, the ratio of microbes to human cells in the human body has been adjusted as closer to 60/40. Either way, we are still more microbe than human (germaphobes, I hope you’re sitting down).

The bacteria in our gut perform crucial digestive functions, such as helping to degrade the food we consume, assisting in the synthesizing of nutrients, and neutralizing toxins. We have evolved to rely on the work of these friendly bacteria, without which our GI tract would not function. So when our microbiome is out of balance, you would expect digestive issues to follow. However, it turns out that your gut health affects everything from mood, energy levels, and the immune system to illnesses ranging from heart and kidney diseases to chronic anxiety and depression.

It turns out that your gut health affects everything from mood, energy levels, and the immune system to chronic anxiety and depression.

The great health innovations of the early twentieth century — namely vaccines, water sanitation, hygienic medical practices, and (perhaps most notably) antibiotics — collectively amounted to a bacterial cease-fire on the human body. And while these innovations effectively doubled the average life expectancy by eradicating much infection and disease, we have also entered an era where new illnesses are prevalent and now associated with a lack of diversity in the gut, such as asthma, food allergies, autism, and autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis.

Naturopathic doctor Grant Antoine describes our gut biome as our earliest teacher; it educates the immune system in our body. “When we’re first exposed, [the bacteria] teach us to understand ‘self’ versus ‘non-self,’ and with ‘non-self’ make a call: Is it friend or foe? Do I issue an inflammatory immune response? Or do I live in peace and not freak out?”

Hippocrates may have identified the notion of inflammation in the fifth century B.C., in the context of healing and injury, but the idea that low-grade inflammation is at the root of all disease is a more current notion. Inflammation caused by an immune response is now thought to yield a distortion and proliferation of problematic cells in the body — potentially responsible for the “four horsemen of the medical apocalypse” (coronary artery disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s). Sequencing of the human genome has yielded a clearer understanding of the function of gut bacteria and its relationship to inflammation — and thus disease.

Western medicine is basically catching up to what Eastern practitioners believed all along: When it comes to nutrition, it isn’t simply about removing things, eradicating things — “this is good, this is bad” — it is always about a proper balance (of bacteria!). I spoke with neuroscientist, pharmacologist, and acupuncturist Dr. Chongbin Zhu of Vanderbilt University’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine about the variances in Western and Eastern medicine perspectives: “Eastern medicine looks at it all holistically. Food and herbal medicine are the same resource. The way to cook, what time to eat, what category of food people should eat — these are all considerations,” he says. “Western medicine is quantified — how much protein, how much carbs, etc. Eastern medicine looks at deficiencies and weaknesses; everything is directed toward balance.” Further, Dr. Zhu emphasizes the individualized approach to Chinese medicine. “We don’t assign the same requirements to every person; there is an inherent process that assesses the particular needs of the patient at hand, not a generalized prescription for health.”

This traditionally Eastern, integrative approach to nutrition is echoed in the alternative healing communities as well. “Your gut is another brain system that is linked to everything else in your body. In the spiritual world we’ve known for a long time, but for it to be endorsed by science is huge,” says Stella Metzner, Reiki master and healing facilitator based in Hudson, New York. For Metzner, this isn’t just a theory: “On a personal level it’s changed my life to take care of my gut biome. I don’t eat gluten for that reason. When I do I get very depressed. I’m not Celiac [allergic to gluten] though. It just starts with what I put into my body; it cycles into not wanting to move my body — I don’t want to work, I don’t want to connect with others. I found that for me, treating depression starts with not consuming gluten. Other people can easily digest it and have no problem.”

My goal: to boast a gut as diverse as any thriving city. I wanted my microbiome to be the Jackson Heights, Queens, of guts.

So there are the immediate effects of an imbalanced microbiome: how the food we eat is processed, impacting how glucose levels may respond to foods that in turn may create a blood sugar dip, generating symptoms of lethargy, sugar cravings, difficulty with attention, depression, and anxiety (all my nearest and dearest symptoms). Then there are the less immediate consequences: inflammation, creating issues ranging from skin disruption, joint pain, a suppressed immune system (which I have particular experience with), and the aforementioned autoimmune issues. Not to mention the longer-term implications of disease, disorders, mental health difficulties, and cancers.

I took a gut microbiome test.

I will spare you the intimate details, but suffice to say, there is now a variety of home gut-health tests that may be purchased online. You submit a sample to their labs — much like an Ancestry.com test (but slightly more disgusting). The results, yielded in about a month’s time, provide insight into inflammatory activity, metabolic fitness, digestive efficiency, protein fermentation, gas production and, most important, microbial diversity.

My goal: to boast a gut as diverse as any thriving city. I wanted my microbiome to be the Jackson Heights, Queens, of guts. It turns out my gut is a little more Colorado than Queens; that is to say, not entirely homogeneous, but not quite the epicenter of diversity I’d dreamed of. My directives: lay off the red peppers, corn, artificial sweeteners, processed foods overall, sugar, and (most unrealistically) coffee. I was told to lean into fermented foods, pre- and probiotics, sweet potatoes, and hazelnuts (and I don’t think Nutella counts).


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While the expectation of the testing sites is to implement the recommended dietary strategies for some months and then retest gut health periodically to track hopeful improvements, I found the most notable shift was in my food conscientiousness and observation of my immediate digestive reactions. I became highly attuned to how my body — really my body/mind/spirit — seemed to be responding to the fuel I consumed.

Gut health isn’t going anywhere. Western medicine is catching up to what Eastern medicine has been promoting for millennia: our bodies are far more integrated instruments than we are oriented to believe. The microbiome implications are interwoven with the concept of epigenetics, or the idea that DNA dictating certain outcomes may be flipped on or off based upon environment. The signals coming from our guts are directing how our genes are expressed. We’ve got the blueprint (DNA), but what actually occurs is determined by lifestyle and choice. The idea that we don’t have to sit back and await our inevitable demise is highly motivating.

The marketplace appearance of home microbiome tests has removed the barrier of discomfort with in-office sample collecting, furthering a niche marketplace for bespoke nutritional guidelines. Much in the way DNA tests have fostered a marketplace for tourism related specifically to one’s heritage, microbiome tests pave the way for tailor-made supplements, dietary schedules, and custom prepared meals, i.e., a culture of further completely unique prescriptive diets.

Additionally, we are in an era of radical self-optimization social media content. The #guttok hashtag to TikTok boasts over 420 million views. Positioning the discussion of diet around gut health is another way to blur the lines between health and beauty. By becoming focused on nutrition because it makes an otherwise bloated stomach look fiercer in a crop top, all in the name of health (as opposed to vanity), influencers are able to lend gravitas to their before-and-after selfies.

Embracing gut health means we can’t compartmentalize our bodies. This idea of true integrative health opens the door to a larger consideration that it’s not only what we eat that may be affecting everything from our immediate mood to our longer-term health, but perhaps every choice we make throughout both the day and the years has greater implications than we are conditioned to believe. In a broader sense, acknowledging the microbiome is taking what was essentially alternative-medicine ethos and marrying it to Western practices of health and wellness; there is an integration here that feels prescient and, to me, a relief — like your two sets of in-laws finally getting along.

Maybe the next time someone tells you to go with your gut, the only reasonable response will be: I really don’t have a choice.

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Our Contributors

Ivy Elrod Writer

Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.

Gigi Rose Gray Illustrator

Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator and fine artist born and raised in New York City, now living in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in illustration at Parsons School of Design.

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