Microbiome Series: Part I – What Is The Microbiome?
You may have heard about the microbiome in the news or from your friend who drinks kombucha, but what is it, really? And why is it so important? What is a probiotic? Do I actually have a bunch of bacteria living inside of me? Does this have anything to do with why I get bloated all the time or why I have autoimmune disease?
In this series of blog posts, a Portland gut health naturopath will take a deep dive into this topic to better understand how we can support our microbial community to improve our health and well-being.
What is the Microbiome?
The microbiome is a term that encompasses a diverse group of tiny (micro) living organisms (biome). The microbiome includes bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, and other microorganisms. Most commonly, we think about the microbiome as it pertains to our gastrointestinal tract, but we actually have microbiomes everywhere! We also have oral, skin, nasal, and vaginal microbiomes, which play an important role in human health and the health of the organs they inhabit. These collections of organisms have grown and evolved with us to form symbiotic relationships that benefit both sides.
For our purposes, we will primarily focus on the “gut” microbiome found in the gastrointestinal tract of the human body, which spans from the esophagus to the rectum. The gut microbiome is variable along the entire gastrointestinal tract–roughly 26 feet long–and is composed of about 100 trillion organisms. The highly acidic stomach has a vastly different microbial composition compared to the more variable small intestinal community or more alkaline environment in the large intestine, where most of these organisms reside.
These microbes form a highly intelligent network with bidirectional communication between the organisms, microbes, and our own bodies. They are not only responsible for helping us to digest our foods, but they also secrete compounds that affect your body’s cells. The human microbiome is also constantly shifting, as evidenced by the fact that as much as 100 billion bacteria per gram of feces can hitch a ride out of our bodies with each bowel movement! (2)
Why is it Important?
The gut microbiome has recently garnered significant attention from the medical community, with hundreds of new studies coming out each year, helping us better understand this aspect of our health. Our microbiomes grow and change based on the food we eat, the microbiomes of our parents, homes, weight loss, pets, age, medications we’ve taken, stress levels, environmental factors, and much more. Each person has a unique microbiome that is different from anyone else’s, and that’s one reason personalized medicine is so important.
Researchers have found that the microbiome plays an essential role in the development of many diseases, including diabetes, colorectal cancer, mental health problems, Alzheimer’s, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, asthma, arthritis, and many more (1). Long story short, these microbes are closely linked to not only human gut health, but the health of almost every other organ in our bodies.
The Role of the Gut Microbiome
We rely entirely on our microbiome. Our microbiome is estimated to have 150 times more genes than we do. They carry out essential tasks for us, and our health and well-being would be severely inhibited without them. Let’s take a look at the role of beneficial gut microbes in our health:
- Our intestines are home to microbes that perform a wide variety of functions. They are responsible for a significant amount of the digestion that takes place in our intestines. They do this by producing enzymes, a type of protein that aids in the digestion of our food. These enzymes can break down lactose, gluten, and other types of food. The bacteria in our gut also break down prebiotics such as fiber and produce beneficial substances that help maintain a healthy gut and body.
- The bacterial barrier acts as a first line of defense, limiting harmful bacteria or toxins from passing through the gut’s barrier and into the body.
- Certain strains of bacteria in the gut produce B vitamins, which help boost energy levels and aid in nutrient absorption during digestion.
- About 70% of our immune system is found in our digestive system. This means that the microbiota in our gut and our immune cells are interdependent – anything that affects one affects the other. The microbiome is partially responsible for regulating immune responses. As a healthcare practitioner, you can find more information about how gut health affects immune function on our sister site, Probiotic Professionals.
- Friendly bacteria help maintain the integrity of the skin’s moisture barrier. These bacterial species help suppress the activity of P. acnes, the bacteria that causes acne on the skin.
- The gut produces many mood-altering neurotransmitters, including serotonin, the “happy hormone,” as well as GABA, a moderator of fear and anxiety. Therefore, maintaining a healthy gut is essential for our overall happiness.
How to Look After Your Microbiome
You can start with these three steps:
- Add fermented foods and drinks in your diet, such as miso soup, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. These foods can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut, which is excellent for your health.
- Be mindful of your sugar intake, as excess sugar intake can feed harmful bacteria in your gut and lead to disturbances in the composition of your microbiome.
- Increase your fiber intake, particularly prebiotic fibers, as they can help your body’s good bacteria to thrive.
What Can I Do About It?
Clearly, the microbiome is important, but what can we do to improve our microbiomes? What is a “good” microbiome? How do we know whether we have a “good” microbiome? The answers are complex, and as a medical community, we continue learning more each day. We will do our best to answer these questions and more in the next few blog posts in this series.
- 1. Vijay A, Valdes AM. Role of the gut microbiome in chronic diseases: a narrative review. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2022;76(4):489-501. doi:10.1038/s41430-021-00991-6
- Hills RD Jr, Pontefract BA, Mishcon HR, Black CA, Sutton SC, Theberge CR. Gut Microbiome: Profound Implications for Diet and Disease. Nutrients. 2019;11(7):1613. Published 2019 Jul 16. doi:10.3390/nu11071613
Dr. Conway’s approach to patient care begins with talking about the gut. The quality and variety of food we put in our bodies is directly connected to the quality of our health. He enjoys supporting patients with a variety of complaints including gas, bloating, abdominal pain, food sensitivities/intolerances, weight fluctuations, and more. Dr. Conway, a naturopathic doctor in Portland, earned his doctorate from the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Learn more about Dr. Andrew Conway