Article 3 in our series by Andrea Bremner

How we have damaged our microbiome?

In my last two articles I introduced you to your microbiome, your gastrointestinal tract how it links to your immune system and how your microbes, gut and immune system all work closely together to keep you healthy. However, as we will discover, since the late 1940s we have been damaging this essential, unseen and forgotten organ and as a result we are now suffering both mentally and physically. So, how have we damaged it?

  1. Pollution

We live in a world of ever-increasing pollution. I have always told my children that there is no “away”, when you throw something “away” all you are doing is putting your rubbish closer to someone else. But sadly, we live in a “throw away” culture and the rubbish we have created has added to our pollution. For example, cadmium is found in batteries – some of our batteries are called nickel cadmium batteries –in laptops, etc. and when these items are thrown away and destroyed the cadmium is released into the water supply.

Increased pollution has resulted in inorganic matter such as cadmium, lead, mercury, plastics and chlorine being deposited in our bodies causing toxic build up.  For example, mercury is a common metal occurring naturally in the earth’s crust, but human activities such as mining and fossil fuel combustion has led to widespread global mercury pollution. Mercury emitted into the air eventually settles into water, or onto land where it can be washed into water.

We are now discovering high levels of pollutants such as mercury and cadmium in our fish and in our soil and increasingly in our bodies; we are now even finding plastics in the human body. Significant increases in pollution of these elements began from the 1950s with the postwar economic boom and industrialization, and this pollution is harming our delicate beneficial microbes.

  1. Medicines

The NHS was created in 1947. Before then people had to pay for their medicines, so people just didn’t go to the doctor. However, once the NHS was set up, people started going to the doctor and demanding their medicines, not leaving their appointment until they had been prescribed their drugs. So instead of concentrating on eating healthily and exercising, we started to not worry about what we ate to keep us healthy, as we knew we could pop to the doctors to get some medicine to make us better. We have become pill-popping people gobbling down antidepressants, painkillers and antibiotics as if they were sweets. Some of us choose to live a poor lifestyle and then just pop pills to keep on functioning. I know there are life-saving medicines which are essential, but unfortunately the over abuse of non-essential medication has done untold damage to our microbiome.

  1. Toxic chemicals

We live in an environment of toxic chemicals. For example, we have become more and more obsessed with antibacterial soap that claims to kill 99.9% of all bacteria. Note the word ‘all’ in this last sentence. Antibacterials are indiscriminate doing untold collateral damage to our beneficial microbes that are trying to fight disease and kill off the bad bacteria. What danger arises from this collateral damage? In fact, research indicates that using antibacterial soap actually results in an increase in pathogenic bacteria on your skin, as the good bacteria are destroyed and unable to fight the bad. In addition to this, some of the chemicals in antibacterial products are dubious as only 1.7% of the 50,000 chemicals used have actually been tested for safety. By using some of these chemicals we are killing off our good bacteria which are designed to keep us safe.

We do not need antibacterials, we already have a microbial defence system called the immune system, I suggest we protect it so we can use it. The best protection against viruses is just normal soap. All viruses are a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer membrane. Soap dissolves the fat membrane and the virus falls apart, like when you have oil on your hands and you wash in soap and the oil just runs off. So, washing with warm water for 15 seconds will dissolve the virus whilst maintaining the healthy bacteria on the skin’s surface. Also, to stop yourself getting a cold you could consider putting soap up your nose: my great grandfather did this and he never had a cold in his life!

But antibacterials aren’t the only toxic chemical that we surround ourselves by. Consider all our house cleaning products and even more importantly what we put on our skin and inside our mouths: toothpastes, mouth washes, hair shampoos, hair sprays, perfumes. The toxic chemicals in these products are all damaging our delicate microbes.

  1. Electromagnetic Radiation

How about EMR? Recent research into wifi, 3G, 4G and soon to come 5G indicates that our microbes are damaged by this radiation. Intricacies of our bacteria communicating make the internet look quaint: there are 4 billion internet users but you personally have 90 trillion bacteria sending messages to each other. Bacteria communicate and coordinate their activities through chemical signals, communicating with each other and our immune system. Research is starting to indicate that this communication is being interrupted by EMR. If this chemical signaling process is disturbed then we can quite easily see how our immune system will faulter.

  1. Stress

We live in a fast moving and stressful world. Cases of people being diagnosed with anxiety are on the increase with some psychologists saying that there is an ‘anxiety epidemic’. I have noticed in the last 5 years and exponential increase in clients coming to me for psychotherapy to help reduce their anxiety. And my clients are getting younger and younger, I treat many teenagers and the youngest child I have worked with is 7 years old. Chronic elevated cortisol levels are being recorded in children and adults alike and cortisol is contributing to microbiome damage which is only leading to more stress. A vicious circle once you are in it.

When something stressful happens to us, our initial response is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. This innate and ancient response occurs almost immediately, and results in the secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine (also known as adrenalin and noradrenalin), both of which work to enact changes that you would generally expect if you felt stressed and/or frightened, like increased heart rate and perspiration. About 10 seconds later, the HPA (Hypothalamus, Pituitary and Adrenal) axis is stimulated. The hypothalamus responds to signals like elevated adrenalin levels by secreting corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) into the bloodstream. CRH tells the pituitary gland to secrete a substance called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels in the bloodstream to the adrenal glands which consequently secretes glucocorticoids (hormones) like the hormone cortisol.

Cortisol has a number of effects on the body that are thought to be carried out in order to help the body deal with a stressor that lasts longer than a few minutes. For example, it increases blood pressure and cardiac output, providing more blood to your skeletal muscles in case the stressor you’re dealing with involves some sort of physical exertion (like running for your life). It also acts to increase circulating levels of glucose in your blood; as glucose is a crucial energy source for your cells, this also provides your body with extra energy to deal with the stressor.

Additionally, cortisol acts during the experience of a serious stressor to inhibit processes that are deemed to be of lesser importance at the time. For example, reproductive activity is decreased and so is digestion. From the body’s perspective, activities that don’t allow you to deal with the stressor at hand should be ignored until the acute stress has ended. Thus, sex and eating, should be considered more of a leisure activity and not something you become preoccupied with when, for example, you are running from the saber-tooth tiger! When our digestive system shuts down this reduces our guts defences allowing pathogens to leek in.

While proper functioning of the HPA axis is essential for dealing with stress, when the HPA axis is stimulated too much it can lead to physical and psychiatric problems. Elevated plasma cortisol has been associated with alterations in the structure and/or diversity of the microbiome as well as an increase in opportunistic pathogenic bacteria. And as a result, individuals with elevated cortisol levelsmay experience a suppressed immune system response, increased inflammation, negative effects on memory and cognition and increases in mood disorders like depression.

In this article I have covered just five problems facing us today that have caused damage to our delicately balanced microbiome. There are two more very important problems to discuss and they are Antibiotics and Food, which I will talk about in my next article. Until next time….

If you want to find out more about the microbiome, gut health, boosting your immune system and how you can heal yourself and your clients from the inside out, please contact Andrea at or visit her website