If you’re scratching your head when it comes to the increasingly popular topic of the human microbiome, you’re not alone. Even scientists themselves are only beginning to uncover how our microbiome really works and how we can make a comeback from some of our western lifestyle habits that can seriously disturb this delicate system.
For us, the research is clear. The more you learn about the intricacies of the human microbiome, the better you can learn how to take care of it and optimize your health starting at the microbial level.
Ready for some microbiome empowerment? We’ve pulled together a little microbiome Q&A to help you better understand this fascinating universe of microorganisms that can affect nearly every aspect of your daily health and vitality.
So, what’s a microbiome in the first place?
Whether you live in the desert or tropical rainforest, you’ve probably heard of a biome, or a collection of plants and animals in a specific environment. A microbiome is the biome that is living on and in your body—instead of being populated with plants, you have countless microbes floating in and on you. Bacteria, fungi, protists, archaea, and viruses are all types of microbes that make up the balance of your microbiome.
You mean, I have a microbiome on me right now? How huge is this thing?
That’s right. And they’re not only on you, they comprise you. With more than 100 trillion bacterial cells, you’re actually ten times more bacteria than human cells. Since bacteria have been evolving for billions of years, there are at least 5,000 known diverse species of bacteria. Although varied and densely populated within your body, the bacteria are not very heavy. When condensed, the cells in your microbiome would weigh around two and a half pounds.
Where did I get my microbiome?
Microbes have been around for a lot longer than humans, and hundreds of thousands of them exist independent from human beings. We inherit our microbiomes from our mothers as we pass through the vaginal canal during childbirth, which is one of the reasons vaginal birth is so important when it comes to building our natural immunities. Then, infants grow their microbiomes through the miracle of breast milk and skin-to-skin contact, along with other factors in their diet and environment.
OK, great. So… why does my microbiome matter?
From your gut to your mouth, the balance of your microbiome promotes your overall health. Research continues to discover that a healthy gut can promote a well-functioning immune system, digestive wellness, a good mood, healthy glucose levels, balanced yeast growth, positive sleep patterns, and many other benefits.
Additionally, as the American Society for Microbiology points out, your microbiome increases genetic diversity to help your body function. For example, the carbohydrates that humans consume are broken down by enzymes, but the human genome only has 20 carbohydrate-digesting enzymes. This is where your microbiome comes in, since just one gut bacterium (Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron) has over 260 enzymes to help you digest. In so many other ways, our bodies would be lost without the human microbiome. Considering your bacteria cells outweigh human cells by a factor of 10:1, you’re really 90% walking bacterial colony and 10% human. Pretty crazy when you think about it!
Is my microbiome unique?
Yes! While microbiomes may have similar functions, recent studies conducted by the Human Microbiome Project showed that your microbiome is very different from your neighbor’s. The specific bacterial species found in your gut, skin, and mouth make you unique. In fact, if you could compare your microbiome with yourself when you were a newborn or toddler, your microbiome would also vary greatly. As your diet, medicine, and environment changes, so does your bacterial makeup.
A great analogy is to imagine the earth’s ecosystem - you find different kinds of trees and animals in different forests all over the world, even over a span of years, but the different ecological functions that make up the forest and keep it thriving are all fulfilled. In other words, everyone has unique microbes that work directly on their behalf. When a species goes missing or continues to be wiped out, another species grows more plentiful and the ecology of the space shifts.
How can I make sure I have a healthy microbiome?
So, here’s the thing. Our microbiomes are incredibly unique, delicate and imperative to a healthy life but like any ecosystem, there are invaders and aggressors that can create problems. Lifestyle factors ranging from our modern diets laden with sugars and additives to the overuse of antibiotics (present in both our medicines and our foods) as well as the frequent use of medications such as birth control, acid suppressants (PPIs), antacids, steroids, hormonal replacement therapy, and others can have indiscriminate effects on the balance of our microbiomes. Even the simple act of over-sanitizing can accidently wipe out the good bacteria along with the bad.
The good news is that nothing is irreversible! Because our microbiota is always shifting and changing, we can play a hands-on role in shaping our microbiomes in a variety of ways - from the foods we eat, the supplements we take, and the lifestyles that we gravitate toward.
Now that you know how easy it is to influence your microbiome, here are some ways you can alter it for the better:
Take a deep breath. You just learned a lot about your microbiome, but there’s plenty more to discover. As you keep finding how exactly your body works, you can improve your chances of overall wellness and live healthier days.
Julie Hays is the Communications Director here at Hyperbiotics. Health writer and mama of two little girls, Julie's on a mission to empower others to live lives free of the microbial depletion many of us face today. For more ideas on how you can maximize wellness and benefit from the power of probiotics, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.
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