What is a microbiome?
The human microbiome is the collection of microorganisms that live in and on the human body. These organisms include bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and they are naturally found on the skin, as well as in the mouth, lungs, and gut. The symbiotic relationship between these organisms and the body has a powerful effect on our health, and science is only just beginning to understand the importance of this very complicated structure.
The human body, much like the planet we live on, has varying climates with extremely diverse ecosystems. On earth, some forms of life have adjusted to drier areas like the dessert, while others flourish is the dark, damp moisture of the jungle. Surprisingly, our bodies are no different, except that this happens on a much smaller scale. Organisms that prefer drier areas may find a home on the skin, and evolve to colonize these areas. Other microbes have evolved to grow more efficiently in a moist environment like the gut. Not only have these tiny entities learned to survive in and on us, the human body has also found a way to make use of these microorganisms. The relationship is collectively known as the microbiome, and it is more important than most people think.
Why is the human microbiome important?
These essential microorganisms help us with a multitude of tasks. They break down food, help make vitamins, keep skin healthy, and work with our immune system to recognize and fight off infections. Many vital processes would not be possible without the help of some indispensable bacteria.
We build up these colonies of microorganisms in different ways, and the process begins at birth. Babies that are born vaginally or are breast fed have different microbes than babies that are born cesarean or are formula fed. We also interfere with its function in many ways, such as when we take antibiotics for the purpose of killing pathogenic bacteria. In the process, many of our helpful bacteria can be destroyed.
According to the NIH Human Microbiome Project, “An ever-growing number of studies have demonstrated that changes in the composition of our microbiomes correlate with numerous disease states, raising the possibility that manipulation of these communities could be used to treat disease.”
Because changes in the microbiome can lead to higher or lower risks for certain diseases, it is possible that new treatments for many illnesses could be possible through a better understanding of the microbiome.
The Health Sciences division of the University of Utah says:
Human breast milk contains oligosaccharides, short chains of sugar molecules that provide absolutely no nutritional benefit to babies. Why do mothers spend energy making these molecules? It’s to feed microbes that are important for the baby’s developing immune system.
Formula-fed babies—who presumably have fewer of these beneficial, oligosaccharide-eating, immune-boosting microbes—are more likely than breast-fed babies to suffer from allergies. Early studies suggest that when babies drink formula that is supplemented with oligosaccharides similar to those found in breast milk, they become less likely to suffer from skin allergies and eczema during the first two years of life.
Besides skin allergies and eczema,
some other conditions that are influenced by the microbiome:
- Antibiotic-associated diarrhea
- Autoimmune diseases
- Dental cavities
- Depression and anxiety
- Gastric ulcers
- Hardening of the arteries
- Inflammatory bowel diseases
Ways to boost the health of your microbiome:
- Eat probiotic foods like yogurts, Kefir, and fermented foods.
- Eat prebiotics foods which are foods that your gut microbes like to eat –onions, garlic, cabbage, and foods high in fiber like asparagus, artichokes, bananas and beans.
- Reduce processed and sugary foods which increase inflammation.
- Only take antibiotics when needed. Talk to your doctor about the differences between a viral and bacterial infection, and always take antibiotics as directed.
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with non-antimicrobial soaps, instead of using antimicrobial soaps that can kill the good bacteria with the bad.
- Avoid meats processed with antibiotics and GMOs, which facilitate the use of pesticides. Pesticides used on crops are not directly harmful to human cells, but can kill essential microbes in the gut when ingested.
- Breastfeed infants whenever possible.