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The Human Microbiome: A Key to Greater Health

The human microbiome is the name scientist use to refer to the trillions of microorganisms. It was long held that they outnumbered our own cells by 10 to 1 but a study from 2016 estimates it’s closer to a 1.3 to 1 ration. This includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes that co-exist in almost every part of our body. Some are friendly and are essential to our well-being; while some are pathogenic and will make us sick given the opportunity.

Advances in technology have provided new ways to identify these microorganisms (and their genes) and has opened new doors to studying them and their role in human health and disease.

At the forefront of this emerging field of study is the “Human Microbiome Project,” founded in 2007 by the National Institutes of Health. This initiative aims to identify the “normal flora” on and within our bodies.

From the Beginning

In utero, we are without a microbiome and it is during our birth that we collect our first microorganisms. How we are born, (natural birth vs. C-section) influences which microorganisms we collect. These initial microorganisms, that become part of us at birth, can impact our health for the rest of our lives!

The largest community of these microbes are within our large intestine and the average adult carries 3 to 5 pounds of them. Other issues like the skin of our fingers, hands, ears, navel, toes, have their own unique community of microorganisms.

Even better, no two people have the same microbiota, but if you live with other people, your microbiome bears some resemblance. There is no one “best” microbiome as healthy people have different sets of microbes. As you age, the diversity of microorganisms diminishes, and the variability between persons is more.

This is kind of gross…

It may be safe to say that many people would find this topic a bit… unsettling. The thought of so much microflora on and within our bodies is not the most appealing thing to talk about. Well, maybe it is for some of us. But even for those that don’t enjoy it quite as much, this is important!

But why?

Well, as we gain more and more understanding of the human microbiome, we understand more and more how it is intimately tied to our health and well-being. At the very basic level, we wouldn’t be able to live without it! In addition to our immune systems, our health is supported by the “good” bacteria in our bodies, and without it, pathogens would wreak havoc.

The gut microbiome is particularly special in that it has been linked to numerous health conditions including anxiety, obesity, autism, and diabetes. It can determine how our bodies respond to certain drugs, including chemotherapy for cancer patients. It has even been suggested that affects the way we sleep!

Healthy Microbiome = Healthy You

So what how do you keep a happy and healthy microbiome? There are two things you can consume to help; prebiotics and probiotics. Surely you have heard of probiotics. Foods and pills that contain a mix of actively living “good” bacteria. Yogurt tends to be the go-to, but there are many other equally if not better sources for this including miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh, and pickles brined in salt water (not vinegar).

How much benefit probiotics provide to an otherwise healthy person is undetermined. However, they can definitely provide some help if you are taking probiotics as these drugs kill off both good and bad bacteria in the body. Food with probiotics-or live cultures- will help to repopulate and achieve a healthy balance in your gut flora.

Prebiotics help to feed the bacteria already living in your gut. So this includes fiber and other non-digestible foods components. Prebiotics such as fiber inulin can be added to all sorts of things like cereal, baby formula, and even water. But foods that contain both prebiotics and probiotics, like sauerkraut and kimchi, are the most ideal.

Moving Forward

More research is to come to answer questions about the interaction of our little co-habitants and specific issues like weight control, and diseases like diabetes, asthma, autism, allergies, ulcerative colitis and even depression. The more questions that get answered the more we will be able to know about our relationship with them.

Once thought to be a hazard to human health, microbes play a major role in supporting our health. If you want to be a good host and show them your appreciation, keep eating your fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and fermented foods.

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