The Human Microbiome
There is more to us than we may think – much more
“Support bacteria. It’s the only culture some people have.” Anonymous
No doubt you’ve heard talk about the gut microbiota, gut microbiome, or gut flora. We use these terms interchangeably to describe microorganisms that call our digestive tract home, a residence they have covertly maintained through millions of years of evolution.
If you know of this intriguing discovery, it has likely been within the last decade.
A Dutch merchant first discovered microbes in the early 1680s while using his microscope to examine microbiota in his mouth. He then compared the mouth microbials to that found in his stool; the results were very different. He could only wonder why with the limited technology of that time.
Over 300 years later, science finally began studying and understanding how our microbiota affects us and why we should care. This article will examine what we now know about this still nascent field of research.
In the last couple of decades, the study of our resident flora has exploded. More than 3,600 academic papers on the gut microbiome were published between 2010 and 2015, with new findings coming out regularly. The findings to date are, or should be, groundbreaking in how we must now think about our bodies. As is often said of the universe, “We are not alone,” can aptly be said about the garden we maintain in our large intestines and colon.
The bottom line is we need the vast majority of these tiny critters to maintain our health and immunities. Otherwise, things will go wrong, sometimes devastatingly wrong.
Until recently, we have thought of our body as only skin, muscle, brain, connective tissue, bone and organs. We did not regard bacteria (aka germs to most of us) as part of our body; we thought of all bacteria as being bad. And, given the choice at the time, we would have preferred being bacteria-free, but that would likely result in many health risks and possibly death.
Yet, research overwhelmingly suggests we should finally appreciate our relationship with our four to six pounds of microbials. The trillions of microbes in our gut are not only a physical part of our body but an essential one.
When I first started reading about the human microbiome, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the composite model of human biology; yet the facts speak for themselves.
The 1970s TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man, introduced a character named Steve Austin. He is a severely injured astronaut who receives a “bionic” eye, one arm, and both legs and subsequently has superpowers. This series started a conversation about the possibilities of directly integrating our bodies and technology.
A decade later, in the late 1980s, we were well into the digital age; home computers were common, and the first cell phone weighed in at a whopping 11 pounds.
Then we started anticipating the “coming singularity,” a future where technology far exceeds the cognitive abilities of the human brain. Extrapolating from the notion of singularity, it follows that we began imagining a future in which humans biologically interface with technology.
With the recent chatter about implanting microchips, it may not be far off. Although, the idea of implants cast a dark shadow on humankind, one that may hasten our sense of irrelevance and increase our vulnerability to being controlled and monitored without our permission or knowledge. Think of the People’s Republic of China and be wary!
We have considered the notion of being a composite organism, not realizing that we are already a complex biological composite. Humans have unwittingly attained a form of singularity with our microbiome. We are inextricably connected to microorganisms, more numerous than our total number of human cells.
What makes up the human microbiome?
Our gut flora is made up primarily of bacteria, but the biome consists of viruses, archaea (single-celled life forms), and even fungi.
Humans adapted to various environments and spread worldwide over millions of years, so our gut microbes adapted and changed accordingly. As the gut biome passed down through untold generations of people, some microbials began acting as part of our genome. Therefore, our human DNA is linked to many of these microorganisms. In essence, we are one with these tiny organisms that originally just came along for the ride.
How do we get our microbiome?
Before birth, infants are nearly sterile.
We get our initial dose of gut biome from our mothers at birth as the infant passes through the birth canal. The infant’s gut biome is further fortified by breastfeeding and other contact with the mother. These babies will have gut flora in their stool, similar to the mother. Infants born through c-section are more likely to get their microbials from contact with the mother’s skin. You may remember our discussion about facial mites in last week’s column.
What are the benefits of having a microbiome?
The benefits of a healthy gut biome are staggering in number. Conversely, not maintaining a balanced microbiome can have devastating effects. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, for example, can be improved by changing one’s diet to foods that stimulate or add to the biome, such as probiotics and prebiotics. The benefits from a healthy gut includes proper digestion of food, improved cognitive functioning, and a vastly improved immune system.
The following is a laundry list of other health benefits that gets longer and longer as we continue to understand the complex relationship between human biology and the world of microorganisms:
• Reduces the risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome and other gut issues
• Better sleep
• Mood enhancement
• Stronger bones – good for those with osteopenia and osteoporosis
• Gut bacteria metabolize vitamins and minerals, making them available to us.
• Manufacture natural antibiotics
• Reduces fatigue, muscle, and joint pain.
• Mitigation of acne and eczema
• Reduction of heart disease, diabetes, and many infections.
• Improved immune system to fight allergies like asthma.
We have yet to understand the implications of a healthy gut biome fully, but the previous list will likely get longer with further research. We must acknowledge our microbiome, appreciate it, and do what we can to keep it healthy.
In the next issue of For Your Consideration, we’ll discuss how to ensure that our gut is healthy and stays that way. We will also see why some scientists regard the gut biome as our original brain. Only in The Pocahontas Times.