Gut Microbiome: The Basics
Editor's Note: This article was originally written by patient expert Aaron Blocker.
It seems like almost every day I come across some type of article, whether it is on the news or a new research paper talking about the gut microbiome. It is a huge topic in the scientific community and being heavily researched—and for good reason. Even with all of the new research and articles being posted some people still may not know exactly what a microbiome is and how it relates to the gut and our health. So let’s review the gut microbiome and discuss what it is and why it is important.
What is a Microbiome?
Let's first start with what exactly a microbiome or microbiota is, and how that relates to you and me. A microbiota or microbiome is described as "the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space." Basically, we are covered in bacteria and microorganisms—in fact, we are covered in trillions of bacteria. It is said that the bacteria just from our own body if you were to weigh it would weigh around three pounds, which is impressive.
I know that our own microbiome is not something we think about daily, but it is important to realize that not all bacteria are bad. It always seems like you only hear about the bad bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is the bacteria that causes pneumonia, or Yersinia pestis that causes the plague, but there are so many beneficial bacteria out there. Being covered in all of these bacteria is not a bad thing, though.
The relationship between bacteria and us is described as a "commensal" relationship, which means that we as humans and the bacteria benefit from each other. Our bodies provide a great environment for the bacteria and in return they help us with all kinds of things, like allowing us to harvest energy from food, they manufacture nutrients that we cannot make ourselves, and they even suppress the growth of harmful bacteria that would otherwise make us ill So, essentially your bacteria are you and to understand you, we need to understand our own microbiome.
Where do we get our microbiome?
Now, let’s ask a second question. Where do we get our initial microbiome? We get our first bacteria from our mother during the birthing process, and this initial exposure of bacteria is what gets our immune system up and running and allows it to start developing. An interesting fact about our microbiome is that it is unique to you! My bacteria will differ from yours and your bacteria from someone else. Research has also shown that about two-thirds of your microbiome is unique to you, and this is especially true when it comes to the gut microbiome.
This also depends on a couple of factors such as what bacteria we get when we are first exposed and what medication we have taken. Other environmental factors such as being breast-fed or bottle-fed and even the diet we follow can change and determine what bacteria is in our gut. The interesting thing about the gut microbiome is the more diverse the bacterial population the more beneficial it is for us.
How does our microbiome benefit us and affect our health?
That is the BIG question that researchers are trying to answer and why we are seeing so many articles in the news. One of my later posts will go into further detail examining how it affects our health, and some specific research talking about it. I just want to briefly mention a couple of ways in which the gut microbiome affects our health. There are a lot of health aspects the gut microbiome contributes to— likely in ways you might never of thought of such as obesity, mental health, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and even cancer.
Every day the list seems to grow with new research being published that is connecting it all and showing how important the gut microbiome really is. The gut microbiome of course will not be the "cure" for all, but it has been important in identifying how it actually plays into the development of diseases, or how it can worsen some diseases. I do think that eventually managing and changing the gut microbiome will be a big part in the treatment of diseases, it is just figuring out what to change it to. I love this quote from Dr. Georgina Hold from the Institute of Medical Sciences at Aberdeen University in Scotland who said:
"As life expectancy continues to increase, it is important that we understand how best to maintain good health. Never has this been more relevant than in respect of our resident microbiota. Understanding the complex relationship among what we choose to eat, activity levels and gut microbiota richness is essential. Developing new ways to manipulate the beneficial properties of our microbiota by finding ways to integrate health-promoting properties into modern living should be the goal."
References and Resources:
Here I have listed some resources I used and further reading if you would like. I also have many more resources if anyone would like to read them!