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This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Featured Author Jane Birch.
Today I address a topic that has absolutely captivated my attention recently. You could say I have a “gut” feeling this is a subject we’ll be hearing more and more about because it is about the amazing miracles that are taking place in our guts. My topic is the human microbiome, the community of microscopic organisms that live in our bodies and outnumber of own human cells 10 to 1. As it turns out, these tiny critters play a critical role in our health and well-being, but they can only help us if we help them!
In the beginning, the Lord created a world where all creatures were commanded to multiply and replenish the earth. There is no reason to think there is a competition to fulfill this commandment, but if there was, there is one clear winner in the game of multiplying and replenishing the earth: microorganisms. These little guys are so small that we can’t see them with the naked eye, but they are literally everywhere, in every nook and cranny of our planet, “from the cold, dark lakes buried a half mile under the Antarctic ice to deep-sea hydrothermal vents reaching temperatures over 200˚F.” Even though they are microscopic, added together their biomass on this earth appears to exceed the total biomass of all other plants and animals combined.
Not only are these microorganisms excellent at multiplying and replenishing, they play an absolutely indispensable role in creating and maintaining all other life forms on this planet, performing critical services such as nutrient recycling, soil preparation, removing toxins, food production, food digestion, water treatment, and much, much more. They do all kinds of tasks that no other creatures can do, tasks that are critical to the functioning of virtually every ecosystem on the planet. By learning to adapt to every circumstance possible and providing critical functions within each niche, they are able to thrive under almost any condition. These tiny creatures are a witness of the works of God whereby “small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6).
The Human Microbiome
Of course, not all microorganisms are friendly to their host in every situation. We are all aware of the nasty bacteria and other pathogens that can invade our bodies and cause us distress, but the vast majority of bacteria and microorganisms in our body are friendly and even fact vital to our health (even vital to protecting us against harmful microorganisms!).
Over generations of time, we humans have developed a very warm and congenial relationship with the large number of microorganisms found in our bodies. We’ve come to depend on these little critters to the extent that our human genome is missing the instructions for vital functions in our bodies that these microorganisms are programmed to do for us. According to Dr. Robyn Chutkan,
They produce substances our bodies require but can’t make. They fight most of our battles for us. They even turn our genes on and off, activating those we need and dismantling those we don’t. In exchange, we provide room and board.
We house and feed these microorganisms, and in return they perform functions critical to our existence. Here are just a few of the functions microbes do for us that scientists have been able to identify:
- Digest food
- Help absorb nutrients such as calcium and iron
- Synthesize vitamins and hormones
- Keep pH balanced
- Maintain the integrity of the gut lining
- Crowd out pathogens
- Neutralize cancer-causing compounds
- Train the immune system to distinguish friend from foe
- Metabolize drugs
- Modulate genes 
Just as they cover the entire earth, these little creatures are literally everywhere in and on our bodies. Not only do the microbial cells in our bodies outnumber our own cells 10 to 1; their combined genes outnumber our own 100 to 1. That means only 10% of the cells in our bodies are human cells and only 1% of the genes in our bodies are human genes, the rest belong to the microorganisms in our bodies! The average human harbors thousands of unique species, the vast majority residing in our gut, in particular, the large intestine (colon). Every drop of fluid in our colon contains over a billion bacteria.
Our complex relationship with microorganisms develops in a fascinating way from our very conception. In fact, they may play a vital role in conception as microbes are “essential in female fertility.” Our relationship with these organisms continues to develop in the womb, which is full of these tiny creatures. Approximately nine months after conception, the birth process provides the small infant with yet another huge endowment of microorganisms, as babies born vaginally travel directly through the birth canal, absorbing a huge dose of the mother’s microbiota as they do. This gift from the mother lays an important foundation for good microbiome health for the baby (and is greatly diminished when babies have to be taken C-section). Regardless, “at just one week old, babies have a complex collection of microbes in their guts.”
These microorganisms do not work for us for free. We are responsible for feeding them and providing the nutrients they need to survive. Fortunately, our part of the symbiotic equation with our microbiome can be relatively simple because the same high-fiber plant foods that provide the best nourishment to humans are also the foods that nurture our microbiome. But the most traditional food of all is also the only non-plant food found useful to the healthy microbiome: human breast milk. Not only does the mother’s milk provide all the nutrients needed by the baby, it provides all the nutrients needed to feed the baby’s microbiome. In fact, one of the main ingredients of mother’s milk (a carbohydrate polymer called oligosaccharides) is not digestible by the baby . . . because it is not meant for the baby, but for the baby’s microbiome! Sadly, because we humans have thought only about feeding the baby and have not recognized the critical need to also feed the microbiome, artificial baby formulas traditionally have not contained the needed nutrients to feed the infant’s microbiome (and can only do so at a very high cost and with uncertain results).
When it comes to our microbiome, diversity is important, and the first few years of a child’s life can be critical. During the first year, the baby’s microbiome continues to expand and diversify as the baby comes into contact with an environment saturated with microorganisms. We may feel queasy when our little ones stick everything into their mouths, but in fact, this introduction of new microorganisms to their bodies provide an important training ground for their microbiome that is key to the development of their immune system. In fact, studies show that children raised in environments with lots of diverse microorganisms have healthier microbiomes and fewer associated diseases. These environments include living on a farm, living with animals, living with lots of siblings, and spending a lot of time in the dirt! 
But one factor plays by far the most important role in the development of a healthy microbiome: the type of foods we eat. The microorganisms in our body absolutely depend on the plant fiber we consume for their nourishment. When a child is weaned and introduced to solid foods, fiber is a critical nutrient that the child needs to develop a healthy microbiome as it “undergoes a radical shift and begins to resemble an adult’s microbiota.”  This is a critical juncture for children, and the types of food a child consumes at this point (and how well that food nourishes their developing microbiome) could well turn out to impact that child’s health for the rest of their lives!
Our Mighty Microbiome is Under Threat
While the use of C-section is a modern miracle that has saved the lives of countless mothers and their infants, and infant formula is likewise a blessing where breast milk is unavailable, both practices are examples of how the modern human microbiome is under threat. Babies born by C-section or who are not breastfed already lack two precious sources for the healthy development of microbiome in their bodies (though not all is lost and certainly there are some useful counter-measures that can be taken under these circumstances).[1, 3]
Likewise, because of our keen awareness of bad bacteria and other nasty microorganisms, we humans have developed a natural aversion to all things microscopic, but we have indiscriminately lumped the good with the bad. The modern world has deemed it appropriate to wage an all-out war against these unseen critters, even though the vast majority of them are not just friendly, but actually essential to our well-being.
We can see this war against microbes in the use of antibacterial cleansers and other strong cleansing agents used to wipe down anything and everything around us, dramatically reducing the exposure our children have to even beneficial microorganisms. We also see this in the widespread use of antibiotics we and our children use in the hope of wiping out the bad bacteria in our bodies, not fully appreciating how detrimental these weapons of mass destruction are to the healthy microorganisms who are doing all they can to nurture and protect us.
Again, the use of anti-bacterial agents, in or outside of our bodies, has its appropriate use and certainly is a life saver in many situations, but our under-appreciation for the importance of good microorganisms has led to their overuse, with very serious consequences in terms of specific chronic illnesses highly correlated with their use.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, the dramatic increase in processed foods and animal foods in our modern world has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the wholesome high-fiber plant foods that are absolutely essential to a healthy microbiome. The has had a devastating impact on the quantity and quality of our microbiome and appears to be linked with the dramatic increase in a number of serious health conditions, including allergies, asthma, and a host of auto-immune diseases.
The Word of Wisdom and the Microbiome
Scientists have been aware of the existence of the large numbers of microorganisms in our bodies for over a century, but it is only in the last decade that we’ve become aware of the critical roles these creatures play in our health and well-being. Because this field is so new, there are many things we do not know. But there is one thing that all the research makes exceedingly clear, and that is the critical role of diet in determining the type and diversity of microbiota in our bodies.
Not surprisingly, the type of whole food, plant-based diet described in the Word of Wisdom as being the diet the Lord ordained for His children is also the best diet (bar none) for our microbiome! What are the healthy foods these creatures need? It is wholesome high fiber fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. These are the foods that contain the complex carbohydrates/fiber that nourish a healthy microbiome. These are the exact same foods the Lord ordained for our use. These are the exact same foods whole food, plant-based experts tell us will endow us with health and help us avoid chronic diseases of all kinds.
How many of us think of these tiny critters when we are eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner? How many of us put any thought into the 90% of the cells and the 99% of the genes in our bodies that are NOT human cells or human genes but that equally depend on the foods we eat? If we are not eating the wholesome plant foods the Lord created for us, we are doing much more than harming ourselves. We are harming the healthy microorganisms that are working so hard in our service! This wreaks all kinds of damage to our system, including problems with digestion, food allergies and intolerance, inflammation, bowel disorders, and autoimmune diseases.
Fortunately, when we change our diets, our microbiome begins to change . . . even within the first 24 hours. We need to be aware that because a healthy microbiome is important for digesting dietary fiber, if we have not been consuming a high fiber diet, it can take some time for our bodies to adjust to increased fiber. Here are some tips for adjusting to a higher fiber diet.
In upcoming articles I will be exploring more of this fascinating world, but you don’t need to wait for any of that information to learn more now. Here are some resources I highly recommend, especially for all parents!
- Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “How the Western Diet Has Derailed Our Evolution,” Nautilus (November 12, 2015).
- Rich Roll interview with Robynne Chutkan, “Live Dirty, Eat Clean: Robynne Chutkan, MD on Everything Microbiome,” Rich Roll podcast (November 8, 2015). (Start at about minute 12.)
- Robynne Chutkan, The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out (New York: Avery, 2015).
- Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health (New York: Penguin, 2015).
Feeding Your Microbiome a Healthy Word of Wisdom Diet
If you’d like to embrace a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, both for yourself and for your microbiome, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health (New York: Penguin, 2015).
 Stephen Jay Gould, “Planet of the Bacteria,” Washington Post Horizon, 1996, 119 (344): H1; Reprinted here.
 Robynne Chutkan, The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out (New York: Avery, 2015).
 Gregor Reid, et. al, “Microbes Central to Human Reproduction,” Am J Reprod Immunol 73(1) (Jan 2015): 1–11.
 Francis Collins, “Not Sterile, After All: The Placenta’s Microbiome,” National Institutes of Health Director’s Blog (May 28, 2014).