WHAT IS THE MICROBIOME?
When it comes to the topic of gut health there can be a lot of baffling words and concepts to try and get your head around. If we want to gain further knowledge and support our gut health, it is first and foremost the microbiome that needs to be understood more comprehensively.
To put it as simply as possible, the human microbiome refers to the collection of all microbes including bacteria, fungi, viruses and their genetic material that live in and on us. We have a few different microbiome communities that reside on places such as our skin and mouth, with the largest being in the gut.
Our gut microbiome consists of around a trillion microbes which is incomprehensible when you think about it! And although they may be microscopic in size the sheer numbers involved and the power of the gut microbiome is anything but small.
In fact, current stats suggest that these microbes slightly outnumber our own human cells so you could consider that you are actually more microbe than human. That feels very sci-fi! The influence of the gut microbiome is also vast and far-reaching. These multitudes of microorganisms exert their power over digestion and digestive processes (which help us to break down foods such as fibre) as well as impacting on hunger signals and appetite. They also have a crucial role in supporting our immune system, producing substances that help to manage inflammation and the health of the gut barrier, and if that wasn’t enough, have a marked influence on the gut-brain communication (that research suggests may affect mood, mental wellbeing and even sleep cycles). Suffice to say our microbiome works hard.
We have what is called a ‘symbiotic’ relationship with our gut microbiome, meaning one that is mutually beneficial. We provide microbes with a cosy home in the gut and in turn they support us generously with the processes mentioned. You could say that we are designed to live in harmony, and we have indeed evolved together for some millions, yes millions, of years.
Therefore, it is a relationship that has really stood the test of time and highlights why it is so important to respect and nurture our microbes.
Yet despite this we have posed some significant threats to their survival. This includes a diet which for many of us is lacking in fibre and one that can be highly processed with artificial ingredients, sugars, additives and preservatives. Never mind the way in which we eat – often rushed with little chewing action – creating extra ‘work’ for our gut including our microbes. Certain medications including antibiotics and anti-inflammatories when over- or mis-used can also have a disastrous effect. Added to that there is the perpetual and seemingly intense stress that we put ourselves through daily that may also impact on our microbes. Of course, genetic predispositions, the microbiome you are born with and environmental exposures can all have an influence too. And at the end of the day each one of us has a totally unique gut microbiome so here’s my advice: take good care of yours and they will pay you back tenfold.