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Bacteria is a word we’ve been trained to fear, with antibacterial products being advertised as critical for optimizing the healthiness of our homes, our surfaces, our things, and especially, our bodies. 

These products, as they relate to our health, come in many forms, with soaps, sanitizers, washes, cleansers, and antibiotics, all aimed at targeting and killing all the bacteria that live with and in our bodies.

The trouble is, however, that not all bacteria are created equally. While some bacteria are harmful to our bodies, contributing to the spread of sickness and infection, others play an important role in our healthy functioning— with a good balance of bacteria being responsible for effective digestion, strong immune systems, protection against inflammatory diseases, and overall metabolic prosperity.

The importance of the balanced bacteria is especially prevalent in our guts, where tens of trillions of microorganisms and 1000 different types of bacteria, collectively called our “gut microbiota,” reside. 

And although we are each born with our own unique gut microbiota makeup, our environments, our stress levels, and what we put into our bodies are also major determinants of the balance of the bacteria in our guts. 

When these factors become disruptive, they can lead to a disproportionate bad and good bacteria composition called dysbiosis. Dysbiosis manifests as digestive discomfort, fatigue, poor metabolism, food intolerances, mood irregularities, persistent illnesses and more. 

On the Genius of Wellness Podcast, Episode 9: Dysbiosis and the Battle for Good Bacteria functional nurse nutritionist Leslie Frodema explains dysbiosis from environmental factors, explaining “We’re, in a sense, living in a toxic soup. We’re exposed to so many things in our environment on a daily basis that can actually affect the microbial balance in our body.”  

She continues, “We know that pesticides and herbicides [ingested] as part of our food supply have a very direct effect on the health of our bacteria within our bodies.”

Specifically, our regular exposure to persistent organic pollutants and foodborne chemicals impact the balance of our bacteria and impairs our microbiota’s healthy functioning.

Leslie describes additional environmental factors that contribute to dysbiosis; “There’s also, unfortunately, exposure to heavy metals, and not just lead.” Over our lifetime, we’re exposed to metals like arsenic, cadmium, mercury, as well. 

In addition to environmental factors contributing to our gut health are the factors expressed from our psychological states; namely, our exposure to stress. When we are faced with repeated stressful situations, our cortisol levels elevate, and consequently, contribute to dysbiosis

Other contributing factors to dysbiosis are the overuse of drugs that block stomach acid (like those used for acid reflux) which inadvertently disrupt gut bacteria balance, and the over-sterilization of everyday things that house bacterial diversity, like cutting boards, kitchen surfaces, drinking water, and more.

“I think it is impossible to have a sterile environment,” Leslie explains, “and nor do you want it . . . We have a microbial cloud that surrounds us, in our mouth, on our skin. [They’re] are all feeding into this cloud, and it is as unique as our own [finger]print.”

Instead of sterilizing and cleaning away all bacteria, “It is better to live in unison with this whole community, with trillions of different bacteria that are there to help serve us and protect us, and … prevent us from getting certain diseases,” Leslie concludes.

But how do you help your body promote healthy bacteria and contribute to a balanced, effective gut microbiota?

Some people are genetically predisposed to better detoxify their own bodies, helping their gut foster healthy bacteria without contributing to less beneficial bacteria. But beyond genetics, there are also many factors in our control when it comes to our personal gut health.

We are in charge of how we maintain our health on a daily basis.

Firstly, we can reduce our exposure to chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides by eating organic foods and supporting organic farming operations, like farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. 

Then, we can focus on consuming plenty of foods that help our bodies naturally detoxify from our exposure to harmful substances in our environments. Foods high in sulfur, like cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, and brussel sprouts), encourage our bodies to become self-detoxifying powerhouses.

Next, we can avoid consuming high amounts of sugar, which feeds the less beneficial bacteria and reduce the amount of processed foods we allow into our diets. Processed foods are full of additives our bodies are ill-equipped to handle, causing stress on our digestive system and consequently, contributing to dysbiosis.

Finally, as much as possible, we can follow a whole-food, plant-based diet, giving our bodies the nutrients we need to promote a healthy gut microbiota and all the benefits that go with it.