What is the Microbiome and Why is It Important?

What is the Microbiome and Why is It Important?

If you are reading this article, you probably know gut health is a hot topic in the health-conscious community. Yogurt commercials may tell you that eating their product will solve your gut issues, but it goes way beyond that. If you are one of the millions of people suffering from digestive disorders, weight problems, lack of energy, sleep issues, or a poor immune system, you need to understand how your microbiome affects your health.

Thanks to tons of research in the last few years, we are learning more than ever about the human microbiome. Healthline does a good job of explaining the role of the bacteria, fungi, viruses, and living organisms that make up our microbiome.

There are actually more bacterial cells than regular than cells in your body, 100 trillion in fact. This means you are made up of more bacteria than flesh and blood. This colonization is diverse as there can be up to 1,000 species of bacteria in your gut microbiome. Each of these strains does a different job. Some of them keep you healthy while others are the reason you get diseases.

The Microbiology Society has a short YouTube video you can watch that explains how the microorganisms that make up our microbiome are vital to our health. The microbiome has not only been linked to digestion but also to our brain as well as our mental and physical health.

Common Myths about Microbes

Many people hear the word microbes and think pathogens. While this can be true, others are only harmful if they get in the wrong place or bloom in number. The Guardian explains that bad microbes are responsible for a wide range of conditions from anxiety to obesity. This is one of the reasons why the microbiome and its microbes are such a hot topic in the new research.

Some microbes are actually helpful and perform jobs like breaking down sugars in human breast milk. Babies are not capable of doing that job yet so the microbes in the baby’s gut perform this function.

Other microbe jobs are providing nutrients for our cells, programming the immune system, and fighting off the colonies of harmful viruses and bacteria.

Another misconception about gut microbes is that we get them only from what we eat. The first batch of microbes we receive is when we emerge through the birth canal. Mom hands over her bacteria and the whole process begins. This is one reason vaginal births are so important. Babies born by cesarean section have a higher risk of getting asthma and type 1 diabetes because they have not been seeded with important bacteria.

Role of Environment in the Microbiome

An article by The Scientist suggests the environment has a much greater role than genetics which was thought to predict inherited traits. It is also becoming more evident through current research that environment plays a bigger role than previously thought in influencing disease. What does this mean? Our environment shapes our microbiome and that has a huge impact on our health.

What exactly do we mean by “environment”? “Environment” begins with birth and the microbes we receive through that process. It expands from that point to the bacteria we are exposed to through nature. Being outside and traveling to different places introduces our bodies to more strains of bacteria. Children raised on farms have more diverse bacteria than those living in the suburbs.

Who would have thought that all the hand sanitizers and products that kill 99.9% of bacteria when you clean your countertops, would actually be harming our microbiomes? The effects of decreasing microbial diversity have been linked to chronic inflammation, bowel diseases, diabetes, allergies, asthma, and even obesity. These illnesses are all on the increase in Western civilization as people move into cities and decrease their exposure to a natural environment.

Microbiology Society explains that our planet is covered with the bacteria referred to as microbes or micro-organisms. These include viruses, fungi, algae, protists, and archaea. They play a vital role not only in human health but also in our food security, agriculture and they basically drive all the processes that support life on Earth. These microbes that enter our system are important for health, nutrition, and prevention of disease.

How Food Affects the Microbiome

It probably comes as no surprise that what you eat greatly affects the microbial balance in your gut microbiome. If you have not been diet-conscious throughout your life, you are probably experiencing an increase in digestive issues, gaining weight, getting sick more often, and just not feeling well. There is more truth than you may realize to the phrase, “you are what you eat”.

Let’s look at some of the reasons your health is being impacted by what you eat. Processed foods, fast foods, and a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables have led you down a slippery slope to a decreasing number of good bacteria in your gut.

Not Eating Enough Fiber

Its pretty simple actually. If you want a longer life and a happier gut, eat more fiber. What does dietary fiber do for you? This is really important so you may want to take notes.

Scientists have known for years that fiber is good for your health. America is generally a constipated nation. It is a huge problem and fiber has typically been related to relieving constipation. Yet so many people would rather take a laxative then change their diet.

The average American diet includes an average of 15 grams of fiber a day. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend:

• 25 grams for women under 50
• 21 grams for women over 50
• 38 grams for men under 50
• 30 grams for men over 50

Not eating the recommended daily amounts per day can significantly change the way your gut functions. As recently as 2017, studies have found that the amount of fiber you eat is clearly linked to thriving bacteria in your gut.

Fiber feeds good bacteria and makes it thrive. The more microbial bacteria in your intestines, the thicker and healthier your protective mucus wall. This wall is the barrier between your body and the bacteria population. A strong mucus barrier lowers inflammation, increases the power of digestion, and keeps pathogens in your body in check.

Since your biome can change seasonally, weekly, or even after a single meal, eating lots of fiber through fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, will significantly impact your gut health. Eating a low fiber diet, or taking the same fiber supplement every day will not only harm your microbiome but deteriorate that extremely important protective mucus wall.

Leaky Gut Syndrome

What happens when that wall becomes weak? You could experience leaky gut. Medical News Today describes leaky gut as a condition that affects the mucus lining in the intestines. When gaps in the intestinal wall develop, this allows bacteria and toxins to enter your bloodstream.

Leaky gut is difficult to diagnose and may range to an extensive range of medical conditions. If you’re not convinced you need to eat more good fiber, let’s take a look at some of the conditions you may be or will be experiencing as a result of the lack of fiber in your diet.

• Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
• Chron’s disease
• Celiac disease
• Chronic liver disease
• Diabetes
• Food allergies and sensitivities
• Anxiety
• Depression
• Sleep disorders

Symptoms of “leaky gut” may mimic other health conditions which is why it is difficult to diagnose. Some of the symptoms include:

• Systemic inflammation
• Lack of energy
• Trouble concentrating
• Skin problems
• Nutritional deficiencies
• Joint pain
• Headaches

There are no known causes of leaky gut syndrome but there are risk factors that can disrupt your microbiota and increase your chances of having a leaky gut. Not eating enough fiber is first and foremost. Also, alcohol consumption, smoking, diabetes, stress, and certain illnesses can increase the risk.

How Gut Microbiome May Affect Health

1. Eating a diet rich in probiotics can help develop a healthy microbiome and may help with weight loss. Studies have been conducted on identical twins where one was obese and one was healthy. They had completely different microbiomes which demonstrate that gut microbiome is clearly linked to microbes and not genetics.

2. Gut health plays a role in intestinal diseases. Poor gut microbes can cause diseases like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Increasing healthy bacteria like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria have been shown to reduce the symptoms caused by these disorders.

3. A healthy microbiome may prove to be beneficial to heart health. Recently, a study of 1,500 people showed that a healthy microbiome played a role in promoting HDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Conversely, unhealthy guts produce trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) which is a contributing factor in the cause of heart disease. TMAO may also block arteries which leads to heart attacks and strokes.

4. Good microbes may be useful in controlling blood sugar and lowering the risk of diabetes. Studies have revealed that the levels of unhealthy bacteria increase significantly right before the diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. People with good gut bacteria are able to regulate blood sugar levels more easily than those with poor gut health.

5. The gut microbiome and brain health are closely related. Certain species of bacteria produce neurotransmitters like serotonin which is an antidepressant. This is made in the gut. The gut is also connected to the brain by an extensive system of nerves. People with a variety of psychological disorders have different strains of bacteria than those with healthy guts. This may the link between gut and brain health.

How to Improve Your Microbiome

There are diverse options for improving the health of your microbiome. The single most important way is to eat a wide range of foods. Since everyone’s microbiome is unique, no one can tell you which foods will benefit you the most.

Eating fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and fermented vegetables will increase your probiotics. This will help reduce the disease-causing bacteria in your microbiome and help the good species populate.

Prebiotics are also very important. This is the fiber that stimulates and grows healthy bacteria. You can get your prebiotics by eating fruit like bananas and green apples. Eat lots of leafy greens as well as asparagus, broccoli, and cabbage. Oats and whole grains are also a good source of prebiotics.

Polyphenols are plant compounds that stimulate healthy bacteria growth. You can find polyphenols in red wine, olive oil, dark chocolate, green tea, and whole grains.

Take a probiotic supplement to reseed the good live bacteria. By taking probiotics you can revive a healthy balance in your microbiome, especially after an illness or taking antibiotics.

Things that are not good for your microbiota include artificial sweeteners. There is strong evidence that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame increase blood sugar and stimulate unhealthy bacteria like Enterobacteriaceae. Sweeteners like maple syrup and ones that are plant-based like monk fruit and stevia are gut-friendly.

Taking too many antibiotics can also harm your microbiome. Antibiotics kill both the good and bad gut bacteria which harms the microbiome. Only take them when absolutely necessary. The effects of taking too many antibiotics have been linked to health problems like weight gain and developing resistance to antibiotics.

Wrapping It Up

Your gut microbiome is made up of a trillion bacteria and microbes. This incredibly diverse system plays a very big role in your health. It controls your digestive process, immune system, brain, and many other components of your overall health. Your microbiome began developing at birth, and it continues to be influenced by your environment and what you eat.

You can take back your gut health and strengthen your microbiome by eating a variety of foods rich in fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics. When you eat a wide range of foods, you will be sure to give all the bacteria strains in your microbiota the food and fuel it needs to stay healthy. A strong gut flora means a healthy intestine lining that protects you from pathogens and bad bacteria and makes you feel better mentally and physically.