Microorganisms have been studied for hundreds of years. Recently the pendulum of focus has swung from disease-causing microbes and germ theory, which revolutionized sanitation, to the realization that some microorganisms may actually be of benefit to our health and the immune system. Next came the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), launched in 2008 by the US National Institutes of Health to study the human microbiome and how changes to the microbiome relate to health and disease. Although much has been discovered about the microbiome, much is yet to be understood completely.
So just what is the microbiome? By definition the microbiome is a collection of microorganisms (microbes) that inhabit an environment. The human microbiome is made up of over 100 trillion organisms (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) that inhabit every inch of the body. Clusters of these microbes reside on or within various locations of the body and are referred to as microbiota. For example, there is a skin microbiota, an oral microbiota, a vaginal microbiota, and a gut microbiota. Each of us has a unique microbiome and microbiota, which all depends on when, where, and what you come in contact with and includes such as the environment, health status, diet, age, gender, and stress. The list goes on.
Most believe the microbiome is established or colonized at birth and then evolves over time based on what it is exposed to, such as breastmilk, the family dog, or even a kiss on the cheek. The microbiome performs a variety of functions, which actually sustain our very existence. Think about the gut microbiota for a minute. It is responsible for the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, the production of certain vitamins, like vitamins B and K, and plays a major role in immune function, all of which contribute to our wellness and survival.
Poor diet and environmental exposures can disrupt the microbiome, negatively impacting health. Studies have shown that the microbiomes of people with diabetes, allergies, asthma, obesity, autism, and digestive disorders, like irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease, are distinctively different from a healthy person’s microbiome.
How does one maintain a healthy microbiome? In the gut, diversity seems to be very important. In other words, the broader the diversity of microbes, the healthier the microbiome and that means a healthier host. Since diet and environment influence the makeup of the gut microbiota, there are ways for you to shape and improve your very own microbiome. Start eating a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables containing carbohydrates, sugars, and fiber, which help diversify those good gut bacteria. Another piece of exciting news is that it only takes a matter of days for diet changes to impact your microbiome, and a healthier microbiome allows the body to begin to heal.
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