The Microbiome: What You Need to Know
Illustration by Jessica Fortner
Chances are you’ve heard about the microbiome by now. You may have even heard that your microbiome has something to do with your health. But do you know what it is or why it’s important? Did you know it impacts your metabolism, digestion, mood, skin, hormones, cardiovascular system, and more? I love this topic because it’s incredibly relevant to everyone.
So, I’ve decided to write a series of articles that dive deep into the microbiome, it’s relationship to different health conditions, and how to care for your microbiota. But first, you need to understand the basics; the terminology can get a little confusing. The terms microbiome and microbiota, are often mistakenly used interchangeably - they mean different things. Let’s break it down.
The human microbiota is all the organisms (aka microbes) including bacteria, viruses, eukaryotes (like fungi) and archaea that live in and on us. The human body is estimated to host around 100 trillion microbes. That’s more cells than there are in the human body! In fact, we’re outnumbered 10 to 1. The gut hosts the most significant population of microbiota which is referred to as the gut microbiota or gut flora.
The microbiome is the entire community of these microbes (microbiota) and their genetic material (DNA & RNA).
The human microbiome project (HMP) is a scientific initiative that uses microbial genome sequences (essentially microbe fingerprints that are assigned to them by their DNA) to study the microbiome and the role these microbes play in human health and disease. Essentially with technology that’s allowed scientists to identify microbes by their DNA, they’ve been able to sequence microbiota similar to when scientists first started to understand the human genome. And boy is it a hot topic, HMP is putting out a ton of research. By the end of 2017, their scientists published over 650 scientific papers that were cited over 70,000 times (1) - my inner nerd is dancing.
Why should you care?
A disrupted microbiome is linked to many chronic diseases including:
IBS and IBD
What causes imbalanced microbiota?
In my practice, I run a lot of stool studies that evaluate the microbiome. Dysbiosis (imbalanced microbes) is an incredibly common finding. One of the first questions my patients ask is, "how did this happen?" In truth, our modern way of living is so removed from the way we and our microbiota evolved to live harmoniously together that our microbiota are constantly under attack.
Here are some of the main threats
Food: the Standard American Diet (SAD) is low in fiber, the central part of our diet that feeds bacteria. Additionally, it’s high in poor quality oils, sugar and refined grains which are harmful.
Antibiotics used in medicine and our food supply
Over sterilization of our environment (disinfectant wipes, cleansers, anti-bacterial hand soap and hand sanitizer)
No wonder so many people suffer from digestive issues and chronic disease!
What to do about it
Eat fiber: dietary fiber is what feeds most of the bacteria in your gut. Aim for 35 grams per day.
Eat probiotics foods: fermented veggies like sauerkraut, kimchi, etc. Fermented dairy (or dairy alternatives) like yogurt and kefir are also great ways to promote healthy bacteria. Kombucha and miso are also examples of probiotic foods.
Avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary! If you’re prone to infections, work with your doctor to improve your immune system rather than using antibiotics every time you get sick. If you have to use antibiotics, also take probiotics during and for at least one month after you stop using the medication. Take your probiotics and antibiotics at least one hour apart.
Avoid packaged and processed food, excess sugar, industrial seed oils. If it doesn’t come from the earth or an animal, you shouldn’t eat it!
Get tested for and resolve dysbiosis