Bridgerton, Belonging, and the Microbiome-our very own ‘Ton’


Dearest gentle reader, as the wise and exceedingly perceptive Lady Whistledown has said ‘All of man’s greatest inventions are nothing more than a distraction from what is most natural to us-our instincts-the innate animal impulse that is inside even the most sophisticated of us. When all is said and done our nature will always win out’.

Belonging. Whether a single-celled organism such as bacteria, or a multicellular creature like ourselves, we all yearn to belong, as we’re inherently social beings. And according to social genomics-the study of how social factors can regulate genetic activity, the type of communities we build and belong to, have far reaching effects on our physical, mental and emotional health, with our microbiome being no exception.

‘The Ton came to town’ near where I live recently, when our local area was selected as the Australian launch site for Bridgerton’s latest series. Wisteria hysteria quickly ensued, as a Regency world of floral wreaths and garden parties were soon established. At its heart, Bridgerton is all about the search for a sense of belonging, whether it be to a partner, family, community or country. And the ‘Ton’, the who’s who of British High society during the Regency era were hugely influential in how these connections were formed. Our microbiome is no different. It too is of immense importance in the grand scheme of our lives of connection and community building, and is our very own ‘Ton’.

‘We think of our bodies as stable biological structures that live in the world but are fundamentally separate from it. But what we’re learning from the molecular processes that actually keep our bodies running, is that we’re far more fluid than we realise, and the world passes through us’ says Steve Cole, a Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine. (1) And the first port of call as the world passes through us, is the land of our microbiome.

The study of the microbiome over the last decade or so has begun to change core assumptions of Western medicine, and is reframing current health narratives as a result. And much of the Ayurvedic perspective forming part of this blog, comes from the wonderful teachings of renowned Ayurvedic author Dr Robert Svoboda, who along with Scott Blossom, gave a series of lectures early in the pandemic on the importance of our microbiome, when we were all questioning the best ways to build our immunity and resilience.

The microbiome is the collective genome of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and archaea that live in and on you, and exist in communities that interact with our human cell body. It’s located in our gut, (which is not part of the human cell world), but is also found in other sites such as the skin, lungs, reproductive organs, nose and mouth (which forms the upper part of our gut). Its main site of action though is the colon. Our environment then is of huge significance, because the microbiome live on the boundaries between our individual selves and the outside world. And if looked after effectively, they can provide a shield of sorts. Without our human cells our microbiome couldn’t exist, meaning the two form an entirely symbiotic relationship. Anything and everything that impacts us-such as the changes in our age and seasons, also influence our microbiome. And together, we comprise one single and individual unit.

Our gut microbiome is all encompassing, being crucial for our nutrition, digestion and metabolism, neurological and cognitive function, cardiovascular, respiratory and endocrine systems, and for our immune function. It makes vitamins such as vitamin K, produces short chain fatty acid molecules, affects markers for insulin, fat storage, appetite and satiation, and affects mood and cognitive function. And it’s the endocrine cells within the lining of the gut that synthesise and secrete the hormones, that play a regulatory role in some of these key metabolic processes. The microbiome then is an exceedingly complex ecosystem, and can only contribute these essential functions to us its hosts in a positive manner, if we play ball and help support a healthy microbiome community. And as with most health related issues, the key ways we can do this is through diet, lifestyle and environment.

Inflammation is the root of all disease according to Ayurveda. The science also teaches that it’s when we allow the digestive fire in our gut to function sub-optimally, that the subsequent build up of toxins and destabilisation of the Doshas is what causes inflammation to develop, reducing our immune strength. We saw this demonstrated clearly during the pandemic, when those with inflammation and the associated underlying disease states, were more susceptible to the worst effects of Covid. Our immune system then is the primary expression of our levels of inflammation. And cosseting a healthy microbiome is of course integral to the functioning of our digestive fire, from which our entire pool of immunity is ultimately born. And it’s the job of the microbiome to train and educate our immune response so we can stay strong in the face of any pathogen invaders, so we don’t experience events such as a cytokine storm. ‘ “ You can think of the gut microbiota as operating a dial that controls the sensitivity or responsiveness of the entire immune system” say Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, PhD’s and Stanford microbiologists.

 The integrity of our gut can be ascertained easily by looking at our gum and sinus health-along with the overall strength of our immunity. And signs and symptoms of toxins in our system, which can lead to inflammation, include a heavy confused mental state, cloudy dull eyes, poor circulation, joint inflammation, coating on the tongue, abdominal discomfort, bloating, skin blemishes, sticky slow stools, excess phlegm, fever, lack of energy, turbid urine, poor sleep and moodiness.

Seven out of ten people in the world today die from non communicable diseases (NCD’s), and these get programmed early in life. Inflammation maintains them, and the microbiome plays a role in initiating and maintaining this inflammation. This means the microbiome influences your risks for developing an NCD, and also how effective any medications you may need to take might be. And as anxiety and depression are classified as NCD’s, it follows that a damaged microbiome could be part of the cause of the increasing incidence of these disease states.

 A recent research paper from western rural India, has suggested there’s no linear link between the Doshic constitution we’re born with and our microbiome. What we do know though, is that by keeping the individual Doshic constitution we were born with in balance, we help to keep our digestive fire operating at an optimum level, therefore staving off the build up of toxins and inflammation. And from an elemental standpoint, most food contains some proportion of the Earth element, as it’s grown in the Earth ( hopefully), which needs Fire to burn it and Air to keep the fire going. The elements and their forces can never be escaped. They are omnipresent.

As the development of the microbiome is understood to largely take place from the time we’re born up until about 3 years of age, if there are any adverse situations that interrupt the development of the microbiome during this time, it can have a lifelong impact. The main factors that influence our gut microbiome include our method of birth, whether or not we’re breast fed and the ancillary health of the mother’s microbiome, whether we take antibiotics-especially in the early years, our diet, our environment and our age. Stress also impacts the cultivation of our microbiome, including any psychological stress/ trauma, circadian / sleep disruption, environmental extremes such as high altitude, heat, cold, environmental pathogens, toxicants, pollutants, noise, excessive physical activity, and starvation. My youngest daughter had a health issue at 6 weeks old requiring strong antibiotics, and her immunity has always been lower than that of her elder sisters meaning it now needs extra coddling.

Just as we need a wide array of plants and animals for the diversity and health of our planet, we also need to eat a variety of foods to build up the richness, depth and strength of our microbiome. I know of some who feed their pets the same daily food for their entire lives. This is not contributing to a luscious microbiome-diversity and variety is key. Eating foods that suit our Doshic constitution and current Doshic imbalances also helps keep our Doshas happy, ensuring homeostasis in our system. Helpfully, the microbiome in the soil that grows our food changes with location and seasons, meaning if you eat locally and in season, you’re more likely to ingest the food that helps your microbiome then and there. This way of eating also helps you and your microbiome transition through the changing seasons. It also creates diversity and variety in your diet over the passage of a year in an easily maintained cycle. Our microbiome is a living social community not far removed from the ‘Ton’, and if you throw in one bad egg in the form of a mass produced chocolate bar too often, the tone of this community will change. When my daughters were young, it took only one problem child to join the school, before the general peace and tranquillity in the playground was seemingly erased overnight. 

Eating foods that feed the five elements is also crucial. Most seeds and nuts, root vegetables, beans, grains, mushrooms, meat including coconut meat, and minerals feed our Earth element. Milk and dairy products, juicy fruits and vegetables feed our Water element. Spices and sour tasting fruits, feed our Fire element. Raw vegetables, fibrous vegetables like the cruciferous family, nightshade vegetables, some beans like black and garbanzo, and tea, feed our Air element. And bitter greens, sprouts, unsweetened vegetable juice, algae like spiralina feed our Space element. What’s also becoming increasingly clear, is that another important way to help our microbiome is to make fibre a centrepiece of our diet, and to cut out processed foods as much as possible. And as our microbiome is a highly social and welcoming community-unlike the ‘Ton’ at times, it’s never too late to begin building a healthy gut. Nature is highly efficient in this manner.

As always, in the land of the Doshas, Vata is key. Dr Svoboda explains so beautifully how the two major seats of life force (known as prana in our bodies)-the lungs and large intestine, work together as a team to give us vibrant life. If we wish to be filled with living energy, we must ingest it in some form. Our lungs are a good place to start, as they take in our initial prana when we breathe, and then our colon is also inherently useful as it then absorbs delayed prana from our food, for long lasting nutrition. Both house the microbiome. If we don’t take in enough prana in our lungs, then our cells get hungrier and our colon has more work to do, and if our colon doesn’t take in enough prana, then our lungs have to work harder to do the same. Problems in either of these organs, such as unhealthy shaped excretions or constipation, or short sharp breaths and constricted breathing, are indicative of prana in our bodily system being sub-optimal. This rattles airy Vata, whose seats just happen to be the lungs and the colon, with the imbalanced Air also then leading to anxiety and fear. Every cell in our body no matter where it’s housed, needs to be reassured prana will be available for its functioning. And as everything has to be processed through our Vata controlled nervous system, the comfort of Vata’s Air element is crucial. When children feel safe, they thrive, because Vata is reassured. Our microbiome is no different.

Keeping our lung/gut axis functioning well then is critical for our overall well-being and health. Six practices that can help, include chewing more when you eat, breathing through the nose, getting enough but not too much sun, eating a diverse group of plants ( including ferments that are good for your individual constitution), getting dirty tending a garden, and reducing and avoiding foods with pesticides, additives and GMO’s. Including ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, oregano and cayenne pepper in your diet have also been found to be beneficial for many different aspects of the gut.

“The Earth’s surface is a record of the past. Its valleys, mountains and landscapes tell a story that dates back 4.5 billion years” says UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay in the introduction to the new book ‘The UNESCO Global Geoparks’. From stunning Scottish mountains, to other worldly Chinese valleys ‘these landscapes are “filled with flora and fauna, as well as a tapestry of geological formations” ‘ and are ‘ “living laboratories”, where geological processes take place and “cultural connections to the land” are celebrated‘. (2) Can you only imagine the mountains and valleys deep inside the geo-sphere that is your gut, and the kaleidoscope of ever adapting microbiomes that are forming who you are minute by minute. What life story are they creating for you, and if you’re searching for better health, does each microbiome community member belong there?

In the press recently there’s been news the geologist and Renaissance art historian Ann Pizzorusso, ‘believes she has finally solved the mystery’ of the ‘ background landscape of the world’s most famous painting’. Combining her two fields of expertise, she suggests Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa around the town of Alecco ‘on the shores of Lake Como in the Lombardy region of northern Italy’ as he included limestone rocks in the painting, which is the geology found in the area.(1) The landscapes we create are inescapable, forming the foundation of art masterpieces, Geoparks, and our microbiome ‘Ton’. What microbiome landscape are you painting deep inside of you?

Just as a school principal sets the tone for a school, and a President sets the character of a country, you as CEO of your body set the timbre of the communities you build and belong to, whether it be your microbiome, your family, or any other wider circles of which you form part. And the healthier your microbiome, the more likely these other communities will positively benefit the story of your life. What cliques and coteries are you building or belong to, and are they helping or harming your health ? Are you winning the daily lifestyle juggle and looking after your inherent nature and microbiome community-your very own ‘Ton’. Are you eating seasonally, eating a wide variety of foods, and including enough fibre in your diet? Is your body sending you any signs of inflammation or toxins, suggesting your Doshas are out of balance ? Manage your microbiome-your bridge to the ‘Ton’! It matters.