What is a Microbiome?
Your microbiome is a compilation of tiny microorganisms encompassing your body both inside and out. Bacteria are the biggest entertainers, though you also host other organisms such as archaea, protists, fungi, and viruses. Altogether, they make up a sort of “mini-ecosystem.” According to several science journals, the microbial genetic material you carry can be 100 times that of your entire human genome, and your gut microbes are estimated to be 10 times more than the number of human cells within your body. Your microbiome is the key to your overall health.
Where do Microbes Come From?
The science community once believed that gut microbiota occurred at birth in a newborn child. However, new evidence proves that it actually begins earlier as both placenta and meconium have their own microbiome.
As a newborn child grows, she will be exposed to numerous microscopic organisms. From the child’s first contact followed by her gut-nurturing compound of Mother’s milk to her first kiss, she will establish her very own unique mini-ecosystem.
The gut microbiota generally reaches maximum diversity during the teen years and then that diversity remains rather stable until the elderly years of life.
Are Microbes Harmful or Helpful?
Thinking of a gazillion little bugs crawling on, around, and inside of your body may sound a bit gross and unhealthy, but it’s a bit of a gamut. Some microbes are pathogens and some only become harmful if they enter the wrong area within the body and escalate in numbers. Yet, many microbes are also very useful to your body.
Gut microbiome perform many very important functions in your body as they:
- make energy available from the food you eat,
- fight off and dispose of bad toxins, and
- provide you with a sense of wellbeing as they produce the “feel good” brain chemical called serotonin and aid the immune system.
They also have many other functions that benefit your body.
When are Microbes Harmful for My Health?
Over recent years, gut health has received much attention as science has proven its link to a plethora of diseases such as diabetes, obesity, autism, and anxiety. Many external influences determine how your microbiome is influenced. This includes diet and environmental factors.
A diet high in processed foods and low in nutritional value will alter your gut microbiome for the worse. This includes food preservatives, additives, colorings, artificial sweeteners, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Digestible carbohydrates, such as starch and sugars, are one of the most well studied dietary components for their ability to modify the gut microbiome. Compounds from these foods such as glucose, fructose, sucrose, and lactose are enzymatically degraded in the small intestine and stimulate an insulin response upon releasing glucose into the bloodstream. Rapid spikes in blood sugar not only alter gut microbiota; they also lead to increased risk for disease such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Other internal exposures that affect the gut include antibiotics, prescription and recreational drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol.
Exposure to internal toxins are not the only substances that affect your microbiome negatively. Environmental elements such as air pollution from vehicle exhaust fumes, energy fuels, paint, and plastic production change gut microbiota. The use of pesticides and other farming chemicals have had some of the most devastating effects on the human microbiome. Garden chemicals you may like to use to maintain your lawns contain glyphosate, the active component of Roundup®. While glyphosate is registered as a pesticide with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, it is also used as an herbicide. Therefore, this harmful chemical may be ingested by breathing and eating it.
How to Improve Gut Microbiome?
Who doesn’t want to be healthy? Making a few changes to your diet and lifestyle can significantly improve your gut microbiome. Following are a few helpful tips:
- Eliminate processed and junky foods.
- Avoid food preservatives, additives, food colorings, and additives.
- Exchange GMO foods for certified organic.
- Reduce starchy carbohydrates in your diet.
- Stop eating refined sugar.
- Eat more fermented foods (i.e., sauerkraut, kimchee)
- Opt for botanical medicines instead of antibiotics for non-major illnesses.
- Take a probiotic supplement, especially if you’re using prescription meds.
- Give up recreational drugs and alcohol.
- Protect yourself from vehicle exhaust fumes and energy fuels.
- Choose zero volatile organic compound (VOC) and low emission paints.
- Use natural weed killers instead of garden chemicals like glyphosate.
Reducing your exposure to the things that can alter your gut microbiota negatively is the first step to staying in good shape. However, adding things like fermented foods, probiotics, and prebiotics are important as well.
What are Probiotics and Prebiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are created by the process of fermentation in foods such as yogurt, kefir, Kombucha, natto, miso and cultured vegetables (i.e., sauerkraut, kimchi). Prebiotics are non-digestible forms of fiber found in many vegetables, fruits, and starches that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms. To help you understand the relationship between probiotics and prebiotics, think of probiotics as seeds in your garden while the prebiotic fiber is the water and fertilizer that help your seeds grow and flourish.
Probiotics and prebiotics are important for your gut and overall health. While your body can grow beneficial colonies of microorganisms through the right foods, a professional grade probiotic/prebiotic supplement is especially important if you have a health condition or disease.
For preventative care, be sure to take a probiotic that has at least 25 to 50 billion colony forming units (CFUs). For those with health issues, start with at least 50 billion CFUs. Some brands also produce condition-specific probiotics. These include several strains that work together to form colonies that are beneficial for your specific condition.
If your diet is lacking in the foods that provide prebiotics, you may opt for a probiotic supplement that contains fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) or galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS).
Be Gut Healthy and Happy
In closing, remember that your gut microbiome is referred to as your “second genome” of the human body. Your body depends on it to help you digest foods, produce certain vitamins, regulate your immune system, and protect you against disease-causing bacteria. That’s pretty powerful so take care of it!
If you want to learn more about probiotics, check out this article: What are Probiotics and Why Take Them?