What is your microbiota and why should you care?

A very important part of continuous health is the microbiome, which is all of the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that colonize humans both inside and outside. Incredibly, everyone carries trillions of microbes, outnumbering the cells in a human body by a factor of 10 and weighing as much as
4-5 pounds.

A majority of these microbes reside in the large intestine and have a very beneficial function to us. They are essential for human nutrition and immunity and assist in digestion and production of important nutrients, as vitamin B12 and vitamin K. Healthy humans have a balance of many different microbes in their intestines, and a change in this balance can have a significant impact on health.

If you have normal bowel movements and are not experiencing any stomach problems, you likely have a good and balanced microbiota in your gut. During certain conditions, this balance could be disturbed resulting in various symptoms. An example is taking antibiotics to target harmful bacteria. These drugs will also decimate the beneficial bacteria resulting in an imbalance that could suddenly make you susceptible to other harmful microbes as infection-causing fungi. Normally we have the fungus Candida albicans in our gut and it is part of the healthy balance of microbes. In cases of antibiotic treatments or with immunocompromised individuals, this fungus can take over and become pathogenic, but we do not yet know how this happens.

The human microbiome is a very recent research topic that has become a major area of interest in the last few years. We are not yet able to predict the outcome based on a specific human’s set of gut microbes and companies based on this premise are likely overreaching on their ability to do this. We can compare normal to diseased patients and find differences in the gut
microbiome, but we have yet to understand if this change causes disease or is a result of it. It is clear that there are significant differences between individuals and this may be related to genetic differences in the human population as well as differences in diet.

The most recent research concerns fecal transplants technology where feces is transferred from a healthy organism to a diseased to introduce the normal gut microbiome. This has been reported to work very well in animals to treat for example inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and obesity, but recent clinical studies for fecal transplant in humans cannot observe any of these effects. In conclusion, we know that gut microbiota is essential for human health, but we do not yet understand how.

However, it is very clear that diet does change the composition of the microbes in your gut and that this can be very important. A varied diet compromising of all macronutrients are beneficial to maintain this balance. If you have taken antibiotics it could take up to 40 days for your normal microbiome to return, and in these cases, it can be very helpful to reintroduce healthy live bacteria that we can find in certain foods that we refer to as probiotic (Watch Toni’s video on this).

In summary, what you eat and when can have a very significant impact on your microbiome and health. You should consider this if you have stomach problems, in particular, if you changed your diet habits or are taking antibiotics.

For more information, the National Institutes of Health have a project on trying to understand the human microbiome.

The NIH Human Microbiome Project (NHGRI): http://www.hmpdacc.org

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