The Impact of the Gut Microbiome on Illness Susceptibility and Healing

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

In the last few years, more and more attention has been placed on the gut microbiome. We have discussed it in general terms here on the Sinusitis Wellness site and how it may be impacted in patients with mold- and mycotoxin-related illness, but the vast impact that it has on health and well-being is becoming increasingly illuminated.

William Davis, MD has recently published a book called Super Gut, which brings home in more detail the fact that most, if not all, diseases begin in the gut.  Attention to this fact is not only helpful but necessary in getting well, especially when mold and mycotoxins are at play in the cause of illness.  The book is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it for all interested in not only improving existing health conditions but also in preventing devastating diseases in the future.

As many sufferers of mold and mycotoxin illness have found, there are genetic predispositions in those who become severely ill from mold exposure and those who do not.  The reason for this goes back to the adage that “genetics load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger”.  In other words, the genes have to be “turned on” by something from a person’s lifestyle or environment in order to express or to begin causing problems. As a person’s system becomes increasingly loaded down or exposed to toxins, the threshold at which the immune system and body breakdown occur is related to their genetics. Thus, everyone is going to experience sickness, the severity of sickness, and the length of sickness differently. But, the microbiome is another interesting and underappreciated part of this equation.

The Microbiome

In the simplest of explanations, the microbiome is the unique and complex population of the gut, which is the lining of the small intestine.  This population is made up of a combination of many different microbes, and these are greatly impacted by our environment, which includes the air we breathe, the foods we eat, and the hormones that are secreted to deal with life. Over many generations of human lives, microorganisms have evolved as well in an effort to coexist with us.  So much so that there are species that exist ONLY in the human gut and no other places on earth. Over the last few generations, however, there has been the disappearance of some of these protective types of bacteria and the insertion of others that lead to infection and inflammation. In various individuals, this may present as a vast array of symptoms from a persistent rash to depression which is unresponsive to treatment, to autoimmune disorders of multiple types.

Many of us have undergone colonoscopies and upper endoscopies which are helpful and necessary procedures; however, that leaves approximately 30 feet of the small intestine which cannot truly be visualized.  The increased use of breath testing has demonstrated almost epidemic levels of a condition called SIBO, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth as well as the lesser discussed SIFO, small intestinal fungal overgrowth.  Examination of surgically removed sections of the small bowel with SIBO or SIFO reveal inflammation, blunted villi (the “hairs” through which absorption of nutrients occurs), and impaired digestion.  The far-reaching health impacts of these conditions are not necessarily digestive, though, which further confuses the situation. In fact, the toxic breakdown of these opportunistic bacteria and fungi can move into organ systems where they do not belong. Then, as symptoms occur, drugs may be prescribed to control them which, in turn, may make the problem worse.

Mold, Mycotoxins, and the Microbiome

If you have been impacted by mold and mycotoxins, then you can pretty well assume that you have disruption of your gut microbiome as well.  The inhaled toxins have a direct and toxic effect on the gut mucosa and the beneficial bacteria living there. IF you happen to have a relatively healthy microbiome, then your illness response may not be as severe as someone more impaired from the get-go, but if continued mold exposure occurs, eventually there will be a breakdown in health due to the effects mentioned above.  What we have repeated over and over in these articles is the necessity of clean air to healing, and I will once again emphasize that. Breathing clean air is the FIRST line of defense for healing from mold!

Second, address your diet. Diet is extremely important to heal from mold exposure, of course, and previous articles have gone into great detail about the need for organic foods, low to no sugar or refined carbohydrates, and the elimination of processed foods with artificial flavoring and colorings.  Avoidance of chlorine and fluoride in municipal water sources by proper filtration are other important steps as these additives both promote fungal growth AND the death of beneficial and protective gut microorganisms.  To take diet a few steps further, there are some other things that can help the microbiome get into better order, including the avoidance of synthetic, noncaloric sweeteners, and emulsifying agents such as polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose as these substances degrade the mucus lining and promote unhealthy bacterial and yeast propagation.

Third, dig into bacterial or fungal overgrowth in the digestive system (SIBO, SIFO) that may continue to promote sickness even when the exposure is removed. Diagnosing and monitoring if you have SIBO or SIFO can require breath testing.  Your doctor may be willing and able to order this testing for you, and it is simple, easy, and noninvasive.  To continue to monitor it, however, can get both inconvenient and expensive.   Dr. Davis suggests the use of an AIRE device, which can be purchased and used at home for monitoring.  I have not yet investigated this fully, but feel it may have huge potential in helping patients see how well their diet and treatment programs are going.

Treatment for Microbiome Disruption

Treatment after diet correction, attention to indoor air quality, and underlying infection testing have taken place may take the form of several things, and may include herbal/natural antimicrobials, such as CitriDrops Dietary Supplement, as well as certain prescription antimicrobials in some cases.  The addition of NAC ( N-acetyl cysteine) can help to break down the protective gelatinous shield that some bacteria and yeast form, also known as biofilm.  The use of probiotics is certainly helpful, but it may require the addition of some particular species that can only be supplied by certain fermented foods including specific yogurts which one can make at home with an instant pot and the proper directions.  I am finding this topic fascinating and will report more as I learn more about it!  Some of these bacteria can help extend and improve sleep, reduce inflammation from arthritis, reduce anxiety and depression, and enhance mental clarity and focus. Prebiotic fibers, which provide an excellent “fertilizer” for beneficial bacteria include foods such as asparagus, turnips, parsnips, onions, brussels sprouts, and others. There are prebiotic powders available commercially, but whenever possible, let food be your source. Organic of course!

A Promising Future for Mold Illness Treatment

As we learn more and more about the importance of the gut microbiome in both protecting our health and in aiding in our recovery and resiliency to pathogens and exposures, it becomes clear that one must address it specifically for treatment to be successful and long-lasting. There is still a great deal left unknown about the gut microbiome, though. While we know that the microbiome certainly plays an important immunologic and pathophysiologic role in humans regardless of disease state, we are still learning about the environmental factors that play a role in developing and changing the function and diversity of the microbiome. It is my belief that future efforts in research and therapies should be targeted to determine interventions that can be implemented to provide an optimal bacterial environment for optimal benefits to those harmed and recovering from environmental and biotoxin exposures. This is definitely an underexplored and promising avenue for treatment.