How Microbes Shape Our Health

Since the discovery of microorganisms in the 19th century, scientists and physicians have been obsessed with germs. With the eerie belief that infectious agents caused diseases, one of the major goals of medicine was to kill these detrimental critters. Our weapons included inoculations, antiseptics, chemotherapeutics, and antibiotics.

Our heroic attempts to win the war of the microbes came to a pause in 2007 with the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) . This five-year long international effort provided us with insight into the fact that the microbes that existed inside and on our bodies weren’t all necessarily harmful. In fact, we had “commensals” that formed symbiotic relationships with us. They assisted us with our biological processes, helped us digest foods, and even fought off some of the bad guys we aimed to destroy with chemicals.

As the years continue, we have come to realize that we have underestimated the importance of our trillions of organisms that we cohabitate with (our microbiota) for too long. These bugs, and their collective genetic information (the microbiome) are not only filling in gaps in our understanding of human physiology, but they are also essential to supporting it.

In fact, our GI (gastrointestinal) tract alone is home to 1014 cells of thousands of different species of microbiota. These gut bugs have been found to have various roles in wellness and associations with health conditions. As stated in my previous post:

The explosion of research in the world of bugs is validating their invaluable role in modulating our bodies in a variety of ways.1-21 Here’s a quick summary of what hosting a “happy microbiota population” in our inner tubes provides us with: the manufacturing of vitamins3, modulating the risk for cancer4, pathogen inhibition5, decreasing cardiovascular disease risk,6   positively influencing mood7 and behavior8, assisting with detoxification,9 digestive support 10, estrogen metabolism,11 regulating weight,12-15modulating diabetes markers,16supporting skin health,17 decreasing food sensitivities,18 impacting autism symptoms,10 decreasing the risk for fatty liver disease,20 modulating autoimmunity 21, and more. (See separate list of references for these sources here.)

Amazing, right?!

As research on the microbiome grows, it appears virtually every organ system is impacted by it, either directly or indirectly. This has led to a different kind of obsession, one of microbial intrigue.

It makes us wonder, are we fully human or microbe-transport vehicles?

How We Influence Our Microbes

Just as our microbes interact with our bodily processes via the metabolites they produce to shape our health, we also influence them and their biological functions through various epigenetic factors. These include our lifestyle, diet, exercise patterns, toxin and pesticide exposures, antibiotic use, sleep quality, and how we handle stress.

With all the glory that can be found in these new understandings, we have also been humbled with a regrettable realization. In aiming to kill the “detrimental” species of bugs, we had inadvertently harmed some of our greatest defenders. Furthermore, we may have even compromised their host. We also have underestimated their abilities.

Antibiotic resistance, superbugs, mutant, and sleuth virus and bacteria have emerged that are impenetrable to some of our strongest drugs.

This has made physicians take pause to be mindful of how their antibiotic prescriptions and medicines are impacting our microbial residents.

What does this have to do with essential oils and the microbiome?

A lot…

Do Essential Oils Hurt Our Gut Microbiome?

As dutiful physicians, we aim to do no harm. We have now come to respect that with great power (to influence the microbiome) comes great responsibility (not to kill off the good guys).

For this reason, many integrative doctors have become concerned that their antimicrobial herbal and supplemental nutrients could also result in a form of dysbiosis (imbalance in gut microbiota) like antibiotics.

This viewpoint, though rational, may be an error and another underestimation of the power of nature.

In my latest article, published in Townsend Letter (released July 15th), I provide a review of studies on this subject. I present how botanical medicine and essential oils promote health, not harm it, even if they act as antimicrobials.

Topics include:

– a broad discussion of herbal therapy and the microbiome

-how essential oils combat antibiotic resistance (not cause it)

-a summary of the current studies on how essential oils impact our microbiome with their ability to selectively inhibit pathogens while supporting commensals

-the impact of essential oils on modulating weight related to their ability to change the microbiome

Unlike a drug aimed at one biological organism, essential oils and botanicals are complex and multifaceted. One action tends to be balanced out with the other constituents present, a concept of synergy.

In my previous articles in Townsend Letter, I reviewed many of the mechanisms of action of essential oils that would further support microbiome balance besides acting as an antimicrobial. These include how they quench oxidative stress, offer digestive support, clear intestinal dysbiosis, relieve stress, balance the nervous system, and mediate various pathways involved in inflammation.

Final Conclusion: Do Essential Oils Hurt or Help Our Microbiome?

Ultimately, the information I gathered demonstrates that essential oils do have the ability to be selective in inhibiting pathogens while not harming, and even promoting, gastrointestinal microbial resiliency.

“Magic” or the synergy and power of nature?

Click here to read the full article. (Available in the July 15, 2023 edition.)

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Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)

This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.

Thanks Pixabay and Canva.