The Year of the Microbiome

I have been constantly amazed this year by how often the topic of the human microbiome has been in the media. All media, including print, TV, social, radio and podcasts have been interested in talking about it. Five or ten years ago, I don’t think many people would have even heard the term microbiome, let alone heard it being discussed in mainstream media.

Is the hype justified? Is it a topic we should be paying attention to? Absolutely!! This is not just the latest health fad that will fade in a year or so. It is an important topic, which health professionals need to learn about and teach their patients. Taking care of your microbiota is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health, regardless of your condition.  This is profound health care.  With a touch of smugness I can say that Naturopaths have known of the importance of the microbiome for decades. Science is now providing us with the details.  Central to good naturopathic treatment is restoring the health of the gut, and the microbiome is essential to this.

What is the microbiome?

E.coli bacteria. Coloured scanning electron micrograph of the rod-shaped, Gram-negative bacteria, Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli. These bacteria are normal inhabitants of the human intestine (also animal intestines) and are usually harmless. Under certain conditions E. coli may increase in number and cause infection. Serotypes of E. coli are responsible for gastro- enteritis in children, particularly in tropical countries. In adults it is the cause of "traveller's diarrhoea"; and of 80% of all urinary tract infections. It is also the organism most used in genetic studies. Magnification: x3,000 at 6x7cm, x1,500 at 35mm size. x10,000 at 8x10"

The microbiome is basically the sum total of micro-organisms that live in and on our body, including on the skin and in the mouth.  The area that receives the most attention however, are those that live in the gastrointestinal tract (GIT), mainly the colon (or large intestine).

The microbiome is known by several names including microbiota, microflora, gut flora and GIT ecosystem. The human GIT microbiota contains 100 trillion microorganisms. Not only is this a figure we find difficult to comprehend, it is 10 times the number of cells in the human body! That’s right, human beings are actually 90% microbe and only 10% non-microbial cells.

The microbiome can even be viewed as an organ. It weighs 1 -1.5 kg and rivals the liver in the number of biochemical reactions it participates in. Contrary to popular belief, there aren’t just a few different types of microbes, there are over 1000 different species! We are continually learning more about these different species. What we know for sure is that each species has its own particular function. This is important when buying probiotics, as it is important to get the appropriate species for the condition you're treating.

What does it do?

Science is still discovering new functions of the microbiota. What we know of what it does is quite incredible. Here are just some of its functions:

  • Modulates the immune system by up-regulating the immune response and also by protecting against the development of allergies.
  • Improves the gut’s motility, i.e. the speed at which food moves through.
  • Synthesis of vitamins, including Vitamin K and B vitamins.
  • Metabolism of compounds including phytoestrogens

And the big ones that have really captured people’s attention:

  • Weight management and
  • Mood management.

I have learnt a lot about the human microbiome this year, so I hope to share more in the coming months, including what you can do to take care of it, and what foods are the most beneficial to cultivate a healthy ecosystem.  This is such an exciting topic; it's cutting across microbiology, genetics, nutrition and medicine, but most importantly, it's essential for your health.

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