How A Parasite Taught Me To Live In Harmony With My Microbes
Like most great lessons in life, my biggest awakening arose from my most challenging experience. Picture this: My husband and I were living our dream, traveling the world, working remotely, and exploring indigenous cultures and breathtaking environments from the jungles of Costa Rica to the beaches of Bali. But, as we made our way from Guatemala to Thailand, I suddenly became incapacitated with severe nausea, an extremely distended stomach, brain fog, and overall fatigue.
And so began a six-month nightmare as I lay sick in bed, unable to do much more than see a never-ending stream of specialists who eventually diagnosed me with Entamoeba histolytica, an intestinal parasite common in tropical environments with poor sanitary conditions. But even with a diagnosis and a clearer path to treatment, I still didn’t know if I would ever recover the level of health I had once enjoyed. It was a very dark, difficult time in my life.
I fought my way back to health with every ounce of energy I had, and as I gained knowledge, empathy, and compassion, I found my life’s purpose—to help others achieve the level of health I believe we are all meant to experience. To say that one tiny microorganism changed me as a person is a massive understatement; it forever altered the course of my life.
Learning about the microbiome.
Hippocrates famously proclaimed that "all disease begins in the gut," and as I learned more and more about the microbiome and the crucial role our gut bacteria play, I realized that there is also another side of the coin that is just as (if not more) important—that all health begins in the gut. As I dove into research, absolutely devouring all the books, medical studies, and scientific journals I could get my hands on, I began to understand that there was a shift happening in our understanding of bacteria (surprise, they’re not all bad!) and the role our microbiome plays in making and keeping us well.
I kept wondering, could this be the future of medicine? With all the emerging research, have we finally started to move away from the need to kill all bacteria with anti-everything—antibiotics, antibacterial cleaners, and antimicrobial ingredients—and begun to move toward a more proactive view of health and wellness?
Rethinking bacteria and what they do.
The more I learned, the more I understood that our microbiome is the foundation of our health and immunity and that a whole lot of things in our modern lifestyles are detrimental to the friendly flora that live there. From processed foods and commonly used medications to stress, overzealous hygiene habits, sedentary and indoor living, contaminants in our food and water, and chemicals in our environment, our microbiomes are constantly under attack. And when the delicate balance of good to bad bacteria in our gut tips toward the bad, we can become susceptible to a host of health problems including illnesses, allergies, and as I experienced, even devastating parasites.
Simplifying my life to live in harmony with microbes.
I finally understood that our beneficial bacteria have a hand (or more aptly, a flagellum) in almost every facet of our physical and emotional health, like balancing our blood sugar and metabolism, optimizing our digestion, regulating our immune system, influencing our moods, and even sharpening our memory and cognitive function. I knew that it was time to overhaul my life and start living in harmony with my microbes—and it all started with simplifying.
The truth is that the last 50 years have not been kind to our gut microbes. With the ever-growing use of pesticides, preservatives, GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial everything labeled as "food," combined with pollutants in the environment and our increasingly inactive lifestyles, we have moved further and further away from the simplicity and natural living that our grandparents and great-grandparents—and consequently their friendly flora—enjoyed.
Learning what a balanced gut really means.
As I turned my life and my gut health around, I realized that true microbial (and overall) wellness begins with a digestive tract that’s brimming with good bacteria. So, I got to work, dedicating myself to helping others do the same by sharing this seemingly complex, new scientific information with the world in simple, practical, and easy-to-apply ways. And because I was unable to find an effective and affordable probiotic formula that I felt confident would keep me healthy, I even decided to team up with leading microbiologists and scientific experts to develop my own.
Living in harmony with my microbes.
That said, while taking a probiotic supplement is a great (and absolutely imperative) start—it isn’t enough. We must learn to choose a gut-healthy lifestyle that protects, nourishes, and supports our microbial friends if we want to optimize our health from its very core. Here's the best advice I can give you for living more harmoniously with your microbes:
1. Avoid unnecessary medications.
Antibiotics may be necessary weapons in cases of severe infection, but they are often overprescribed, misused, and are rampant in our food supply. The problem? They indiscriminately wipe out both good and bad bacteria, enabling the resistant bad guys to take over. Other medications—like NSAIDs, hormone replacers, birth control, and antacids—also deplete beneficial bacteria. Whenever possible, I look for natural alternatives and ways to support my body’s intelligent defenses without disrupting my microbiome.
2. Stay away from toxic household and personal care items.
Much like antibiotics, antibacterial and antimicrobial (notice a pattern here?) products are designed to get rid of all bacteria, and they don’t discriminate. So, when you douse your house, your mouth, or even your hair with disinfectants that promise to get rid of dirt and germs, you’re also getting rid of the good guys that help to train and regulate your immune system. The bottom line—we must take responsibility for reading labels and paying attention to what we use in our homes and what we put in and on our bodies.
3. Make movement a habit.
Studies show that people who commit to an active lifestyle have healthier and more diverse microbiomes than people who don’t. In fact, exercise can increase numbers of beneficial bacteria by nearly 40 percent! After learning that, I do my best to prioritize movement every day—whether it’s walking, dancing, practicing yoga, or simply hitting the gym.
4. Live dirty.
We've become a culture obsessed with cleanliness, and the effects are devastating. Kids are developing allergies at alarming rates because they aren’t getting the early exposure they need to the dirt and microbes that train their developing immune systems. At our house, we try to embrace the dirt and make an extra effort to spend time outdoors and with animals.
5. Eat naturally.
Because the composition of our microbiome can change dramatically within just hours of eating, it’s crucial to eat a diet that nourishes—rather than harms—our friendly bacteria. Plant-based, whole, unprocessed foods rich in prebiotics (fibers that feed the good bacteria) are the key to a healthy gut, as well as staying away from artificial sweeteners, GMOs, pesticides, emulsifiers, and anything else that poses a threat to precious flora.
We’ve also made the choice to incorporate intermittent fasting (we try to make sure 12 to 15 hours passes between our last meal of the day and breakfast the next morning), eat plenty of fermented foods, and adopt a gluten-free, dairy-free (except raw), and sugar-free diet—due to the positive effects each has on gut health.
6. Dial down the stress.
Chronic stress can do a number on our good microbes by making our gut more permeable to bad bacteria and toxins that can trigger microbe-depleting immune responses. And sometimes it’s the good stress—continually stimulated adrenals from our incredibly ambitious and action-packed lives—that is the culprit we need to monitor most closely. Whether it’s meditation, yoga, journaling, or simply having a good laugh, I do my best to slow down and keep my stress levels in check.
Those dreadful six months of fear and sickness will be forever etched in my mind, heart, and gut, not because I regret going through them but because they awakened me to the beautiful, complicated, fascinating, lifesaving world of bacteria that lives within each and every one of us. And in the years since, learning to live a life that is in harmony with my microbes has allowed me to experience firsthand what true health feels like.