You see the word microbiome as you scan the latest health and wellness news, and you sigh. “Another new trend”, you might think as you start to scan past that story or article. The thing is, the microbiome is not new, and it is not one thing: it is almost everything.
What Is the Human Microbiome?
As the Center for Ecogenetics explained, the human body has more than 100 trillion microbes; outnumbering human cells at a ratio of around ten to one. Most inhabit the human “gut” (which is a term used to describe the stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and associated organs).
When scientists use the term microbiome, they are describing the genetic material of the microbes inhabiting the surface and interior of the human body. That is the genetic material of fungi, protozoa, viruses, and bacteria1).
We all know the whole “you are what you eat” concept, but the microbiome takes it even farther. We are what we are, in that sense, and our microbiomes may weigh up to five pounds. Five pounds of bacteria, viruses, and so on!
And though it is clearly very present in our daily lives, it was not generally recognized to exist until the 1990s.
What Does the Microbiome Do?
To have a microbiome is one thing, but to understand what it offers to us in the way of benefits and good health is another. Again, the Center for Ecogenetics explains it plainly and clearly that the microbiome goes to work supporting digestion, regulating the immune system, and fighting off other, harmful bacteria. It is also part of vitamin B production, as well as vitamin K, assisting in blood coagulation, mood regulation, and more.
Clearly, that means it is essential for our nutritional health, our immunity, and our bodily development. So, we can stop thinking of all bacteria as unwelcome and start realizing that there are many millions of beneficial “colonizers” inside and outside of our bodies.
Problems With the Microbiome
Harvard University discovered that the microbiome in a healthy individual could stand up against pathogenic organisms that might get inside the body through consumption of contaminated materials.2)
If you don’t believe that this enormous collection of viruses, protozoa, fungi, and bacteria are of benefit, just consider what happens to us when there are malfunctions or problems in the microbiome. Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia can all appear.
The English newspaper, The Guardian, also reported on the significance of the human microbiome, indicating that it has shown strong links to many conditions and diseases, including diabetes, anxiety, obesity, and autism.
It has been proven to affect the individual’s reaction to certain drugs (including chemotherapies), and also shows links to quality of sleep. Some studies have also looked at the vaginal microbiome and its impact on HIV infection or prevention.3)
Where Do We Get Our Human Microbiome?
And something of profound interest to most is that the human microbiome is not thought to originate from the environment into which we are born, but is inherited from our families. As that report in The Guardian indicated, humans are sterile while in utero but are exposed to “handover bacteria”, as they emerge out of the birth canal. Referring to this exposure as a “gulp at birth”, the article also notes that a human female’s microbiome alters slightly during pregnancy to an optimal balance for her offspring and laying a foundation for the child’s optimal microbiome health.
How are scientists sure of this? Monitoring children born via cesarean section rather than through vaginal delivery has shown a higher risk of conditions like diabetes and asthma. Additionally, the microbiome in the human “gut” alters rapidly in the first two years of life, being guided mostly by the environment, breast milk, and more.
However, it never seems to “lock” into place because factors like diet, drugs, stress, and changing environments always continually play a role in our microbiomes, changing them continuously throughout our lives.
Why Does It Matter?
As you can imagine, paying attention to this balance of bacteria, viruses, and other compounds is important. For instance, we just learned that a mother’s microbiome has an impact on the health of her baby. And, a human’s microbiome will have sway over their ability to fight chronic illness, infection, and even gastrointestinal diseases like Crohn’s and IBS. We also saw that drug treatment reactions can be dictated by the microbiome.
This is why researchers are digging deep into the subject and even “mapping” the human microbiome, looking for previously unknown genes and species of microbes.
The immediate results have been quite impressive. New therapies are on the rise, and the ability to treat bacterial infections caused by harmful bacteria with more potent healthy bacteria is just one way that the research helps. We’ve all heard of fecal transplants, and that too is the direct result of microbiome research.
The microbiome is even being used in crime scene investigations, according to The Guardian, which noted that law enforcement has partnered with scientists to use microbiome studies as a tool capable of shedding light on whether an individual was in a specific location. The science can also point to when someone died thanks to microbiome changes over time, and even help identify clandestine burial sites.
How to Boost Your Microbiome’s Health
So, you understand the value of the microbiome in general, and why researchers are looking so closely at it from different angles. Is there anything you can do to keep yours in top shape?
Yes, and it boils down to two simple terms that most of us are already familiar with: Prebiotics and Probiotics. Perhaps most of us know the latter more than the former, but both are widely available as supplements. Probiotics are widely abundant in foods like yogurt and other fermented dishes. Prebiotics nourish the good bacteria and are available in something known as inulin fiber, which is often a component of fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi (both full of probiotics and ideal for improving the microbiome).
So, don’t feel funny about playing host to colonies of viruses and bacteria because many of them have been with you since birth, and many are helping you to fight off disease, enjoy good digestive health, and feel your best.