By Grace Alano

Grace Alano

Discover what the microbiome is with Ryan Goodwin, LifeVantage Chief Marketing Officer, and Brian Dixon, PhD, SVP of Research and Development.

The microbiome just put very simply is this collection of all of these microorganisms that are living both in us, which we normally associate the microbiome with, but they also live all over us as well. In this episode, Brian Dixon and Ryan Goodwin discuss what a healthy microbiome looks like and what we can do to have a healthy microbiome. 

Flip the “Microbiome” Switch: Gut Health and the Microbiome Audio Transcript

Ryan Goodwin:

Hello and welcome back to Flip The Switch. My name’s Ryan Goodwin and I’m here with Brian Dixon. Say hello Brian.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah. Hey everybody.

Ryan Goodwin:

I’m the chief marketing officer here at LifeVantage. Brian is our senior vice president of research and development. And in episode six we told you guys we’re going to come back and talk more about the microbiome and today is the day. So Brian, what is the microbiome?

Brian Dixon, PhD:

What is the microbiome? You know, people have heard those words over and over and over again. But yeah, let’s take a deep dive into what exactly the microbiome is initially. And I think we should also talk about its roles in health and kind of where the state of the art of the science is. And then maybe I think we should follow up in the next episode talking about maybe what you can do to support it. So if that works for you, Ryan…

Ryan Goodwin:

That sounds great.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Let’s take a stab at it. You know, the microbiome just put very simply is this collection of all of these microorganisms that are living both in us, which I think we normally associate the microbiome with, but they also live all over us as well. I mean, literally every nook and cranny inside of our bodies are harboring these bacteria and…

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah don’t remind me.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

But I mean it’s in your mouth. It’s in your ears. Work lower into those folds. It’s in your belly button. It’s just on your skin between your toes. I mean, this microbiome, but we’re just intimately associated with each other.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah. We’re like a walking ecosystem. We are a walking ecosystem.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah. A walking ecosystem or a walking Petri dish. From the scientist point of view, it’s scary. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of stuff going around on the internet about all this stuff with washing your hands and depending on how well you wash them, you touch a piece of bread and you can see that bread maybe start to rot away a little bit more quickly than with somebody with really clean hands. But yeah, we’re not sterile and it’s so interesting and maybe medicine and science have guided us wrong in the past, the approach was always just to try to keep us as clean and as sterile as possible. I mean, with this kind of over prescription of antibiotics, antibacterial soaps, I mean hand sanitizers, et cetera, et cetera, where maybe sterility has kind of led us down the wrong path.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah, it definitely seems like that just might be the case here.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah, no question. Just a whole bunch of interesting research. So for example, when they tried to… It turns out to be really hard to do, but when they do this microbiome research, they’ll try to breed the control animals to be completely sterile and then they’ll inoculate back in the various components of the microbiome, and it turns out that those animals that are completely sterile inside and out, they don’t live very long and they don’t live very healthy lives.

Ryan Goodwin:

That’s amazing that they can even do that.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah, it’s a Herculean effort and they have to keep the sanitation, I mean, unbelievably clean and pure and I mean, they’re almost working like they’re working with these pretty insane infectious diseases is how they have to treat it.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah. Well, I think that the most important thing for people to first have any kind of understanding of how important the microbiome is, just like you said, we are these walking Petri dishes we’re covered in in the microbiome, these little bacteria and other small things, other little critters, I guess you might call them. And we have a symbiotic relationship. In other words that they’re actually there to help us on a lot of levels actually. And that’s what the research is starting to show, right? That there’s far more connection between us and the microbiome than we ever supposed before.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah. And maybe even beyond a symbiotic relationship, I probably go as far to call it a mutualistic relationship, a symbiotic relationship or really these kind of hitchhikers that are along for the ride. But you know, the definition of a mutualistic relationship is that both organisms are getting benefit from living off of one another. And I think that’s very clearly the case with the microbiome. We’re providing them with safe haven, we’re providing them with food in a lot of cases. And then I think something we’ll talk about a little bit later in the episode is exactly the health benefits that these various microbes living on us and in us are giving us.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah. So what exactly makes up the microbiome that you would find in your gut? In broad strokes.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Let’s talk about just the microbiome everywhere in general, and then maybe we can work our way down to, I think what most people associate the microbiome with that being in our gut. But literally when you go in, and you try to characterize who’s living where. So whether it’s your ears, your mouth, your belly button, wherever it might be, it turns out they’re very distinct populations. So the very clear evidence that who is living there, it is kind of meant to be there and also providing a very specific benefit. So you look at just the structures of these different organisms that are living there. And like I said, they are completely different, and I think another misnomer around the microbiome is that we only think of them as being bacteria. You know, I think we probably focus a lot on bacteria.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

They’re obviously the most studied when it comes to the microbiome, but we’ve got a ton of organisms that are living on us and in us just besides the bacteria. So for example, we’ve got these things called archaea. Maybe a simple way to think about those are very, very primitive bacteria. I mean bacteria are primitive anyway, but these are archaea are incredibly even more primitive bacteria. We have these little single cell fishes that are living on and in us that we call protozoa. So a lot of them have tails and can actually kind of wiggle around and move around on us. We have fungi living all over us as well. I mean this is just going to get more and more disgusting. So fungi, think about that, we’re walking bread. I mean maybe if you put us in the oven we’d rise and be tasty.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

I don’t know. Viruses, we think especially right now in today’s era we think of viruses as being bad, but quite frankly, viruses can provide us a health benefit and are considered part of the microbiome. And then the last class of organism is probably just bacteria. Like we were talking about the most, the most I think, well associated with the microbiome and definitely the most studied and probably what we’ll focus most of the rest of the conversation on.

Ryan Goodwin:

Are they the most recognized because they make up the biggest portion of the population.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah, well it’s hard to know for sure because part of the problem is these things are living in really unique environments in and onside of us. So it can be really hard to culture these things up. I mean, it’s actually a miracle that we can take something out of our gut, for example, put it in these artificial environments outside of our guts and get them to grow up and divide and actually be studyable.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

I don’t know if that’s a word, but you know, so we can actually study them. But if you start to think about some of those other organisms, like especially fungi and even viruses, like how do we culture them out? How do we grow them up and be able to study them even more? So it’s hard to say who makes up the largest concentration of the microbiome. And I don’t know if we’d have to count by number or by mass, but very clearly the bacteria are the ones that have caught the attention of microbiome researchers.

Ryan Goodwin:

And so should we talk about some of that? Some of the more meaningful research that’s been coming out around that?

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah, for sure. We can definitely do that. I mean.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

For sure, we can definitely do that. I mean, it’s just so interesting with all these health benefits that have been associated with the microbiome. I think, again, because we associate the microbiome almost exclusively with gut health, I mean clearly the health of our guts, the lining of our guts, our digestive process is directly and intimately related to the microbiome. But there’s also been a number of other health benefits that have been associated with the microbiome. So, for example, they’ve been implicated in cardiovascular health, immune health, I mean 70 to 80% of our immune cells actually live in our digestive tract. So, there’s literally this direct connection between our microbiome and a number of our immune cells. I mean, oral health, brain health, which maybe we’ll come back and talk about it a little bit more.

Ryan Goodwin:

I love that one.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

But they help us metabolize lipids. They actually can make vitamins for us. So, especially vitamin K, some of the B vitamins are made in small quantities by the microbiome. They can also help us metabolize certain nutrients. I think fiber would probably be the most common for everybody. But they also help us metabolize the food that we eat and especially different fibers. That’s really their main meal plan, especially for these bacteria.

Ryan Goodwin:

So, a healthy microbiome is going to help support a healthy heart. It’s going to give you a better brain function. It’s going to give you a better immune system. I mean, it seems like it’s at the core of your own wellness.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah. Right now it’s really this wild, wild West or frontier of medical research and scientific research. We know these organisms are there. We know they’re absolutely essential for life and especially for health. But the research is really in its infancy and I think as more and more comes out about this direct link with the microbiome and exactly what they’re doing inside of our bodies, it’s just going to be even more and more links to all sorts of different health benefits.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah. So, what does a healthy microbiome, I guess, look like? Or what are we aiming for when we’re trying to have a healthy microbiome?

Brian Dixon, PhD:

You know that’s literally probably the $1 trillion question. If we could figure that out and put exactly the best things we needed inside of a product, we’d be incredibly rich individuals and LifeVantage would skyrocket.

Ryan Goodwin:

And we’d help a ton of people.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Because this microbiome research is in its infancy, the answer to that question isn’t really well known. Where they focus most of their research in the health benefits on are who are the biggest players? So, who are those bacteria, for example, that are living inside of our guts at the largest concentration, and they’re just kind of using deductive reasoning to say that because these bacteria are present in such large quantities inside of us they must be incredibly important. But then you start to take various lifestyle considerations into effect and it gets incredibly complicated really, really quickly.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

As Americans, we like to give maybe Mexico a bad name. If we go travel down there, we talk about Montezuma’s revenge and how we get susceptible to… it’s actually called Traveler’s diarrhea… it’s not fair to pick on Mexico, but as we switch our diet, as we switch our location, and when the endogenous bacteria that live in one location is different from where you’re used to living, it’s that disruption in the microbiome that’s causing the problem. I mean, what’s so ironic is we never talk about Mexicans coming to the US. They get equally sick because they’re changing their diet, they’re exposed to different bacteria and other microorganisms and they get just as goofed up as we do when we travel.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

But it’s the same for everywhere on the planet. You know, if we go to Asia, if Asians come here, if we go down to South America, South Americans come here. Anytime you switch up your diet or lifestyle in relatively quick order, it can really disrupt that initial balance of the microbiome until it settles back into a new norm and we get used to that.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah, we were able to actually see that firsthand. Most recently, we actually did go to Mexico, was the last time that we traveled internationally and JC’s has been working on fixing some microbiome balance issues, so she’s been testing her microbiome pretty regularly. She tested it a few months before we left Mexico. We all actually didn’t feel great coming back from Mexico. She tested right after and so she was able to compare her results between the two and it was radically different.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah, and that’s the thing. We like to think of the microbiome as being permanent, but it’s incredibly dynamic. I mean, they’ve done studies where they’ll give, let’s say, a carbohydrate rich diet, a completely different population of bacteria, for example, living there than someone who’s maybe on either a high fat or a high protein diet. You start to throw different fruits and vegetables in there, it completely changes again. And so, your microbiome is really adapting to our lifestyle, but especially our diet. And it looks like it’s pretty dynamic and probably happens within the course of a day or two we can start to see these wicked changes happening in the different populations that are living, especially inside of our guts. So, diet and lifestyle is probably by far the number one effector of the microbiome.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah, that’s what was going through my brain too that, I mean, nutrition is going to have a big impact on microbiomes and microbiomes can have a big impact on your health, and we all know that a healthier diet is going to lead to better health. But one of the main reasons that that just might be the case is this right here, right? That we’re supporting that healthier microbiome that is actually creating that mutual relationship and we’re boosting, boosting the health of our entire ecosystem including ourselves.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah. And what else looks like is happening is, is it’s almost working a lot like antibodies might be inside of our body. So, antibodies are really kind of this memory of exposures to various foreign invaders from our past. Right? So, these antibodies and those cells that are used to produce those specific antibodies, they become present in really low levels. But then, as soon as we’re exposed to something we’ve been exposed to before, our bodies ramp up that defense mechanism. And in a lot of ways our microbiome is that same way. So, we don’t really clean out kind of some of these old bugs, they’re living there in low concentrations and when they need to really kind of grow and divide and adapt to that new environment, they do it. And an example I can give that’s close to me is, my wife’s Colombian, we go down there and vacation at least once a year.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

And it’s so funny because I see them eating the street food and all different sorts of street food down there, and I always have to ask the question, “Hey, can I eat that?” And I’ll either get a yes or no, but the kids, my wife, they don’t hold back and they don’t get that microbiome disruption or that Traveler’s diarrhea like I do. So, over the course of their younger lives, they’ve built up and there seems to be this kind of memory aspect as well to the microbiome. So, they’re definitely way less affected than I am.

Ryan Goodwin:

Oh, that’s fascinating. Another thing that I thought was interesting as I was getting deeper into the research and the relationship between the microbiome and health is how your metabolism can be totally-

Ryan Goodwin:

Is how your metabolism can be totally affected by your microbiome. I think you were the one that was telling me about that animal study with the mice where they were able to change the mice’s microbiome and make them skinny or fat.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah, there’s definitely direct links between the microbiome, so again, who’s living there, and then whether or not you’re at a predisposition to be overweight or possibly even underweight. It’s just mind blowing. Eating exactly the same calories, whatever effect that the population, the specific population of the microbiome you have, has these different health outcomes, and it kind of goes back to looking at all of those different things we had talked about before: cardiovascular health, immune health, brain health, oral health. Again, it just comes down to who’s there, and they are having a very important role in our overall health.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah, totally. I mean, and if that isn’t proof right there, that there’s a mutual relationship, then I don’t know what else, what else somebody would need.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

The system is, if you really think about it on a very scientific level, I mean, the word mutualistic relationship, it couldn’t apply more. And you know, again, not to try to scare anybody, this is a good thing. We need these microbiomes. All of those different organisms that we usually associate with being bad, we need them to be living on and in us for optimal health. I mean, and we see these mutualistic relationships throughout nature. I mean, they’re hardly exclusive to just our microbiome. But, I mean, think for example of a honeybee and a flower. I mean, the definition of a fruit is a ripened ovule, so that means a flower has been pollinated, it gets fertilized, and then it starts to grow the seeds and the fruit around it. If we lost all of those pollinators off the face of the earth, we would never eat another fruit in our lives. I mean, how scary is that? So, these mutualistic relationships, you know, think about Finding Nemo. Right? The clownfish living inside of that anemone.

Ryan Goodwin:

Right.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Right. The clownfish is providing all of these different services, cleaning, et cetera, to the anemone, and the anemone, the clownfish is one of the few organisms, if not the only one, that can live within the tentacles of these anemone, and it provides direct shelter and protection for the clownfish. A really fascinating one for me, you know, we don’t have these up in North America, but as we start to get into central South America, parts of Asia, there’s all these leaf cutter ants, and I’m sure we’ve probably all seen documentaries of these lines of ants that are just carrying leaves back to the hive, or little cut up sections of these leads back to the hive.

Ryan Goodwin:

Totally.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

So, if you think about that, the forest is providing food for these ants, so something, a branch falls or they’re even climbing up trees and starting to harvest the leaves. These ants are actually farming the leaves and eating a fungus that’s feeding on the leaves. But then what they’ll do is, after they’ve kind of farmed that crop, right, that fungus, they’ll then kick the leaves out of their hives or their nests, and it basically becomes a way for the forest to nutrient cycle. So, literally the forest couldn’t survive if these ants weren’t helping with all of this carbon and nutrient turnover that’s going on, and the forest is providing food for these ants. I mean, it’s just beautiful. Another great example, think of a reef out there somewhere. So, if anyone’s ever been snorkeling or scuba diving, right, we want to look at the beautiful coral reefs and the fishes that are swimming around it.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah, I love that.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Again, a very intimate mutualistic relationship. I mean, we’ve probably heard a lot in the news lately about the bleaching of various reefs around the world, and what that is, is either you’re getting too much sunlight or UV light that’s penetrating the ocean and it’s actually killing the algae that’s living inside of the coral. As water temperatures change too quickly, either increasing or decreasing, it can also kill those various algae that are living inside of it. So, the coral is actually this kind of bone matter. I mean, it’s made out of mostly calcium and we think of bones as white, and then the way that a lot of these coral are getting their color is from the different algae that are living inside of it. So again, the coral is providing a structure and a home, and the algae is really filtering the seawater and also providing food for itself, but also for the coral organisms themselves.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

So, we see this everywhere. I mean, I know I talk a lot about me loving to garden, but it all comes down to the health of the soil, and the health of the soil isn’t just making sure it’s nutrient rich, but one thing we have to add is a lot of organic matter, and as that organic matter is being broken down, we have other bacteria and fungi that are living inside of the soil. For example, there’s this fungi that’s called mycorrhizae. These mycorrhizae, they thought were initially pests. They thought, oh my gosh, there’s this fungus that’s literally wrapping around the roots of these different plants. But, what they found was that there’s this intimate relationship between this fungus and the roots of various plants, whereby the fungus is actually acting as an extension of the roots, and so it’s increasing the surface area, so a plant can take up more water and more nutrients from the soil.

Ryan Goodwin:

No way.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

And then, as the plant’s doing its photosynthesis, right, it’s making sugar, it’s making energy for itself, it’ll send those sugars back down to the roots and will help feed that fungus that’s intimately involved. So, we see this mutualistic relationship just everywhere in nature. I mean, I can go on and on. Lichens, for example. But, when we talk mostly about what’s going on in humans, especially in our guts, it’s just so beautiful how it’s been sent up. As we work our way down the digestive system, and maybe we’ll encourage people to go back and listen to the last episode on just kind of what your digestive tract is and how it’s working. But, as we’re working our way down the digestive track, after we get outside of the stomach, you literally start to increase the number of bacteria, and as we get towards the very bottom of our digestive system is where we find the majority of these microbiome organisms.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

So, if you think about that, they’re not there trying to hurt us in any way. They’re literally sitting at the bottom of our digestive system and they’re letting us take a first stab at absorbing everything that we can. Basically, the microbiome said, “Okay, well, if you can’t absorb it, then we’re basically going to take your leftovers and utilize all that leftover stuff for food,” and a lot of that tends to be fibers, but even fats and proteins can make it down to the bottom of the digestive track, and that’s where some of that nutrient metabolism by this microbiome provides such an important health benefit for us.

Ryan Goodwin:

Why do you think that a bacteria in general, and especially, you know, bacteria in the gut for so long got this bad rap? You know, because I know that when I was a kid, bacteria and germs, there was this extreme phobia about those and, you know, being clean. Just like you said, somehow we’ve become over-sterile. And, I know that when I was a kid, that antibiotics were being prescribed pretty frequently by doctors.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Like candy, yeah, almost.

Ryan Goodwin:

Just like candy. How do you think we got it so wrong?

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Well, I’m just speculating here, so take this with a grain of salt, but it really, I think it dovetails into wh-

Brian Dixon, PhD:

-Take this with a grain of salt. But really, I think it dovetails into why also we were so slow to determine the importance of vitamins and minerals. And it all started with Louis Pasture. I mean, you’ve heard of pasteurizing different foods, it comes from Louis Pasture, a French scientist who really came up with the germ theory of disease.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

And so, early on in science and medicine, they thought the cause of all disease was some micro organism that was living on and in us. And so, we needed to get rid of these organisms from our body to have optimal health. The reason that impeded, I would say especially nutritional research, is when these diseases of nutritional deficiency really started to arise. I mean, we can go back as far as maybe the early sailors and explorers that were sailing around the world, and were really prone to scurvy and rickets and some other things.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

But, a lot of that early disease, they were misled because of Pasture’s hypothesis and now theory, that all of the cause of this disease, even though it was a nutritional deficiency, they thought it had to be due to some microorganism that had infected these individuals. So people were looking forever to try to figure out what was making these people sick.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

And then it just turns out now in hindsight, it was things incredibly simple to get, like vitamin D, vitamin B12 and vitamin C. And I think that probably fed in a little bit to maybe what was going on in the microbiome. It’s just, “Oh no, these quote unquote nasty viruses and bacteria are living on and in us. It can’t be good, so let’s try to get rid of them.”

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah, crazy, crazy stuff. I am finding myself spending more and more time thinking about how I can support these little guys. Every time I’m making the decisions of what’s going on my plate, I’m thinking about how this is going to support my microbiome. And that’s another reason why I try to do exactly what you’ve told us to do in the last episode, is to eat a lot of vegetables.

Ryan Goodwin:

And I try to get a lot of variety going too, especially with the organic, like, real food. I try to get as much of that as I possibly can. Do you think that there’s a benefit to locally sourced types of food when it comes to the microbiome?

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Yeah, I think one, it’s just healthier. So, it’s been shown that after a harvest, the longer that food sits, the nutritional quality just starts to degrade. As oranges for example are sitting around, that vitamin C starts to become found in lower and lower concentrations. I mean, the whole reason a lot of nutrients are so important to our body is they conduct chemical reactions. And these chemical reactions, by definition, are the changing of the structures of these different compounds. And nutrients are central to doing that. So they’re very reactive in nature.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

And so, two things that any nutrient hates is just water and air. So the longer stuff is sitting around, the less nutritional quality it’s going to have. But the other reason I do like more locally sourced ingredients is maybe two fold. The first is, as you were talking about, just the environment that’s surrounding us. We get adapted to whatever bacteria and fungi, viruses are living around us. And so, we’re used to being around those things.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

And we also need to use those to kind of seed ourselves as well. So we’re actually born sterile. I mean, the first exposure of a baby to anything that has to do with the microbiome is through the birth canal. It’s their first almost inoculation, if you will. And again, there are some interesting theories about applying too much sterility to raising kids, where we’re so worried about either running around in front of them or behind them, and just cleaning everything up and making it so sterile.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Back when I grew up, I remember making mud pies and playing in the dirt. I’m sure my fingers were in my mouth nonstop. But it’s that kind of healthy exposure to the outside environment that seems to be very important, especially early in life when we’re much younger, to start to develop a healthy, robust, diverse microbiome.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

So that’s one reason I like local food, is we want to wash our fruits and vegetables for sure, but it turns out it’s going to be really hard to wash off a lot of these different micro organisms. So, especially as we’re eating raw vegetables, raw fruit, we’re going to be exposing ourselves to different bacteria. So it may as well be the local bacteria and other microorganisms.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

And the other reason I think local’s important is, again, just through storage and then transit. A lot of those microbiome organisms, they’re just not going to survive that storage and transit as long. So you’re also more likely to get a higher dose, if you will, of the different microorganisms from locally sourced food.

Ryan Goodwin:

Yeah. Well, I think that makes perfect sense. So for those of you listening at home, if you love this topic about the microbiome, you can tune into our next episode. We’re going to get targeted on how you can support a healthy biome with probiotics and prebiotics. So come right back to Flip That Switch. This is Ryan Goodwin and Brian Dixon, signing off.

Brian Dixon, PhD:

Thanks everybody.