This might come as a shock if you haven’t heard of the microbiome. The microbiome is the collective genes of 100 trillion bacteria that live inside us, their communities are called the microbiota.
Humans have complicated relationships with these bacteria. Some of them, we need to survive, and vice versa. Others are merely freeloaders that don’t provide any harm or benefits. And a select few are pathogens that make us sick and can even become deadly.
The balance of the microbiome is essential to our health, and yet, it’s often overlooked by medical science in the West. There are still a lot of unknowns regarding the microbiome and exactly how it affects human life. Scientists have discovered, however, that our bodies’ genetics are only about 10 percent human, so the bacteria inside us that make up the other 90 percent are extremely important.
Some studies are even finding that the microbiota in our gut have greater influence on our health than our parental genetics. That means these little microbes could be important predictors of severe diseases or even the cure for potentially deadly conditions.
Although scientists are still trying to understand the microbiome, there are a few things we do know, and we will look at those things in this article. We’ll look at how your own microbiota might be affecting you in ways you didn’t realize, we’ll look at the effects antibiotics are having on this sensitive ecosystem, and we’ll talk about metabolic dysfunction and how getting your gut right may be the solution you’ve been looking for.
Your Microbiome and You
Scientists have found that around 99 percent of our genetic information is microbial. These bacteria are everywhere; on our tongues, hands, guts, and nether regions. We are born with some, but we acquire much of our microbial makeup during our infant years, from family, playing outside, and interacting with others and their environments.
There are three kinds of bacteria in our bodies: commensals (generally harmless freeloaders), mutualists (favor traders), and pathogens (the bad guys). These bacteria live and die in our bodies. At any given point, scientists estimate there are about 100 trillion bacteria living on and inside our bodies.
One of the most interesting findings scientists are discovering is the microbes’ ability to adapt. Unlike rigid human genetics, the genetics of the microbiota can evolve and change rapidly, which means they can adjust to dramatic changes in environment a lot faster than humans can.
This ability to adapt quickly might explain a few irregularities you notice among humanity, and even your peers.
One study found that the microbiomes in Japanese people contain bacteria that has evolved to process seaweed. This explains why Japanese people can digest seaweed much better than those with typically “Western” guts.
This applies to pathogens too. Have you ever gone out to eat and had everyone get food poisoning except for one or two people? Chances are the microbiomes in the individuals who didn’t get sick have developed a microbe that can beat the bacteria that caused everyone else food poisoning.
These microbiota fight for us, as their host. Their health is, therefore, essential to our health.
Scientists are also finding that bacteria serve more than just our stomachs. Studies are also finding that the microbiome has a strong effect on our brains. Research has shown the microbiota may play a role in our ability to manufacture neurotransmitters (like the happy chemical serotonin), enzymes, vitamins (namely the Bs and K), and other essential nutrients (such as amino acids and short-chain fatty acids).
Natural and Eastern medicine has long believed in the brain-gut connection, but studies are showing that the connection might not be overstated. It seems the health of your gut affects the health of your whole body.
How Antibiotics Affect the Microbiome
When it comes to the gut, diversity is key. A healthy gut has a lot of diverse microbes living together.
Antibiotics, for all of their wonderful and important contributions to society, have recently been found to have a severe downside. Antibiotics don’t discern between the “bad” bacteria that’s making you sick and the “good” bacteria that keeps you healthy; they just eliminate everything.
If the gut flora isn’t properly rebuilt after a hefty round of antibiotics, the individual could suffer. One of the most severe effects is the development of Clostridium difficile (or C. diff). This is a pathogen that develops in weak microbiomes and can be deadly if it isn’t treated very carefully. According to America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, C. diff kills 14,000 people a year in America alone.
Just as bacteria’s ability to adapt can be very beneficial for the human body, it can also be detrimental. Scientists are seeing new, antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria all the time, which are very hard to treat and can become deadly.
Antibiotics were the king of the castle for a long time; the secret sauce that was going to heal the world. One study found that children in the West receive an average of 10 to 20 rounds of antibiotics before age 18.
Worse yet, expecting mothers who use antibiotics or need to deliver by cesarean section may not pass on essential microbes to their children, leaving those kids to grow up with an inherently less diverse flora.
Antibiotics have also had a strange effect on weight gain, particularly in the United States. Antibiotics are often used by farmers to enlarge meat and enhance dairy products. Trace amounts of these antibiotics can often be found in common foods like meat, milk, and ground water. And they can also be found in cleaning products like chlorine washes for vegetables and hand sanitizer.
The enlarging effect antibiotics have on animals also happens to humans. This is presumably because antibiotics cause inflammation, which can lead to myriad health concerns. The unintended consequences of a hearty burger can be cardiovascular disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and maybe even cancer.
Swearing off antibiotics isn’t the answers, but smarter use of them is essential. Doctors, particularly in the West, are being more cautious about prescribing antibiotics and regulations on the use of antibiotics in food and cleaning products are being put in place. The best thing you can do to protect yourself, though, is to educate yourself.
It shouldn’t be surprising that many American adults suffer some kind of metabolic irregularity. The term doctors use to encompass a cluster of health conditions is metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome can be increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. These often occur in some way together, which increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Although there is no known cause of metabolic syndrome, one study found that about 34 percent of American adults are affected. The best correlations scientists have for metabolic syndrome now is inflammation. However, they aren’t yet able to determine if inflammation is the cause, or one of the symptoms.
Keeping Your Gut Healthy
As you’ve seen, maintaining the health and diversity of your microbiome is essential.
There are a few ways you can maintain your gut health naturally: probiotics, prebiotics, fermented foods, and supplements.
- Probiotics – Probiotics are full of the “good” bacteria our guts need. These can help you introduce diversity to your microbiome and keep it plentiful with important microbes.
- Prebiotics – Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that make it easier for beneficial bacteria to thrive within your digestive system.
- Fermented foods – Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your microbiome is introduce a healthy amount of fermented foods into your diet. These foods not only increase the volume of bacteria in your microbiome, they also increase diversity. Fermented foods you should consider are yogurt, milk kefir, water kefir, and kombucha.
- Supplements – Although it’s important to try to get bacteria into your body via your diet, supplements can help you compensate for what you can’t do with food alone. Probiotic 11 by Nature’s Sunshine, for example, is a great supplement for supporting repopulation of beneficial bacteria in your gut.
It’s shocking at first to realize that our bodies aren’t actually our own. The trillions of microbes that live inside us are crucial to our health and, although some of them are pathogens, the majority of these microbes are there to help us live better, healthier lives.
Treat your microbiome right by being cautious about your consumption of antibiotics and regularly eating fermented foods. To supplement your gut health, consider taking pro- or prebiotics. Nature’s Sunshine has a large variety of gut health-related products that can help keep your gut happy and healthy.
Not sure where you should start? Take our quiz to figure out which stomach-related supplement is right for you!