A microbe or microorganism is unicellular or lives in a colony of cellular organisms. They are vital to humans and the environment, very diverse, mostly include bacteria and can be found in almost any habitat where there is nature. This habitat is collectively known as the biosphere and within our own human internal ecosystem, the vast majority of microbes are living in your gut and make you who you are.
Bacteria that live within the human digestive system contribute to gut immunity, synthesise vitamins such as folic acid and biotin, and ferment complex indigestible carbohydrates.The International Human Microbiome Consortium was set up to identify and study all the microbes living in our body and what purposes they have. Work so far has revealed that the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in our gut need one another.They play a vital role in shaping our physical development, helping train our immune systems and providing us with the ability to carry out a set of finely regulated chemical reactions to maintain life – known as metabolic activities.In fact, the discovery of how important this relationship is between good and bad bacteria, is completely transforming the way these researchers are studying human biology. It is now becoming more and more apparent that so many conditions or illnesses could be a direct result with the relationship we have with our bioflora from the moment we are born.
Within the first few months of birth, gut flora undergoes huge changes several times as different species of bacteria establish and flourish responding to a baby’s needs and diet.By the age of 3, the gut microbiome has matured and the majority inhabit the colon. Whilst we all share a number of the same species, it is also becoming more widely accepted amongst scientists, that modern day living, stress and diet influence the variations and may have an impact on our health.
A healthy gut flora requires balance and helps to keep pathogenic bacteria in check by occupying the pockets within the gut where these bacteria would normally lurk. Given the space or opportunity, pathogenic bacteria invade these niches and this presents as illness, disease or generally feeling unwell.
The importance of gut microbes and what they are capable of doing falls under the study of metagenomics. This involves looking at collective genomes or microorganisms where genetic material is recovered directly from the microorganisms’ environment. The most detailed study was published by a European led consortium MetaHIT (Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract) in 2010 who found over 3 million different microbial genes. Whilst each person doesn’t have all the microbial genes discovered, we all share a core group and these are responsible for at least 600 biochemical functions and are crucial to the survival of our human ecosystem. It is now much more apparent that we are dependent on our gut flora in regulating our biochemistry and metabolism. At Imperial College London, they have found that your gut microbiome can affect your ability to metabolise and respond to the painkiller paracetamol for example. The MetaHIT project also found that certain microbes responded to different toxins or food additives. This implies that the future of pharmaceuticals will have to take our microbiome into account when tackling illness and disease.
In the MetaHIT study it was found that people with diseases had an imbalance of gut flora and in some cases, such as IBD, had 25% fewer microbial genes. Right now, it’s not clear whether our gut bioflora actually cause health problems, or change as a result. However, as nutrition consultant Catherine Gladwin states, “The importance of healthy gut bioflora just cannot be emphasised enough. Replacing and balancing gut bioflora is an important step towards recovery. For example, clients with allergies and food intolerances are also shown the link between compromised gut bioflora and how they have developed an inappropriate immune response in the first place. The effects of having a healthy population of good bacteria in the digestive system can’t be overstated.”
Researchers are now questioning whether modern day living is having a detrimental effect on the ecology of our microbiome? With obesity, IBS, diabetes, some cancers and autoimmune diseases increasing within western cultures, perhaps this is the case. It’s also widely known that the overuse of antibiotics severely compromise gut flora as well as becoming resistant to illness. Whilst over time, gut flora can build back up, for many people in the western world poor diet and stress has an effect. The ecology or natural balance of our gut microbiome struggles and is weakened, needing some additional help, by topping up the gut with a good probiotic.
A good probiotic is live and crucially activated enabling bacteria to quickly establish and multiply in the gut. This helps to redress the balance as well as better enable our biochemical functions. In reality, probiotics have been in development for at least 10 million years as humans and probiotic bacteria have been living in harmony forever. However, it’s only in recent decades that scientists have come to realise how important that relationship is. By taking control and helping yourself and by applying a health-caring approach to modern everyday living, this could go a long way towards a healthier you. It would also take some strain away from the National Health Service which could really be referred to as a disease care and cure service. The Chinese have long since realised the importance of self-care. Their philosophy and approach for health has always centred on prevention, teaching people from an early age to take responsibility for their health and well-being on an ongoing basis. As Sun Si Miao said, “For the human body to remain in a healthy and balanced state, nothing else is required but to care about its nourishment.”
Understanding the intricate relationships of our human internal ecosystem is vast and as Claire Ainsworth reported in New Scientist, “It is one of the most daunting tasks facing biologists today. So it is perhaps fitting that tackling these complex questions, will require cooperation across a diverse range of disciplines.”