B is for Biomeby Tina Greco, PharmD
Our gut bugs. Who knew they were so important to us? We learn early in childhood about the forces of good and evil. We usually don’t realize at the time that the simplest of storylines will play out in so many ways throughout life. As we are finding out, there is a similar battle waging in our guts that is affecting our health. As researchers learn more about the makeup of the vast array of microbes that share our body, there is data to suggest that alterations in a healthy, diverse, microbiome may be associated with many of the diseases we have a label for but do not yet fully understand.
So what does the term microbiome mean? It gets confusing as the terms microbiota and microbiome are now used interchangeably, but their original definitions were distinct. Let’s start with the term microbiota, microbiologist Joshua Lederberg defined the term microbiota in 2001 as “the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that share our body space.” The human microbiota is made up of trillions of cells, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. And yes, even with our microbes, the good comes with the bad. What we are discovering is that the collection of microbes residing in our gastrointestinal system, on our skin, in our genital tract, and other body parts is acting as an organ within an organ. They all have genes driving their functions and the term microbiome originally referred to the collection of genes inside these microscopic inhabitants- but with time the definition has relaxed to mean both the microbial community and their genetic material. There have been different estimations of the number of bacteria that co-exist with the human body, commonly quoted as ten-fold higher than the number of human cells we possess. While new estimates may be lower, the important point remains that they serve a vital collection of functions related to nutrition, mood and immunity. While invisible to our eye, pretending they don’t exist would be a big mistake.
So how do changes in this microorganism mix affect us in more indirect ways? There is a long list of scientists and clinicians studying its link to inflammatory bowel disease, depression, obesity, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, psoriasis, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, and more. When we don’t take care of our gut bacteria, the bad bugs start to rise in number and fewer good bugs may lead to a disruption in our intestinal lining so things that normally pass through us now leak out into the bloodstream and the immune system is triggered to respond. This is known as “leaky gut,” a syndrome that conventional MDs are just beginning to accept and explore. This heightened activity of our immune system can then result in a chronic inflammatory cycle that plays a big role in some diseases.
So how do we take care of our microbiome? As far as we know now the answer is not new but the importance of adhering to healthy choices as self-treatment is gaining traction. We can encourage the growth of the good bugs with whole food choices that are natural (from the ground or farm), organic if possible and have high fiber content. We can address any possible food intolerances or sensitivities (e.g. gluten, grains, dairy, corn, soy) that may aggravate the immune system by experimenting with an elimination diet. Adequate stress management, sleep and exercise have been shown to matter too. As I discussed in a previous post, the use of antibiotics has also been implicated in the destruction of good bugs and the subsequent rise of bad bugs so consider a round of probiotics after any course for at least a month to help get back to a healthy balance.
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