If you have been reading any recent publications(such as the New York Times or O magazine), you have probably come across the term “microbiome”. This word has been buzzing around the health care world for awhile( I first heard a lecture on it 3 years ago while attending a Functional Medicine conference in NYC), but now it has definitely hit the mainstream.
A microbiome describes the microbial environment of a person’s body and consists of hundreds of species of bacteria, viruses and fungi. The intrinsic cells in our body are actually outnumbered 10: 1 by these organisms, so there is obviously something very important to be learned by studying this environment. Each individual has a microbiome that is unique to them which is shaped by genetics, the method of birth(vaginal versus Caesarian section), the home in which a person lives(families often share many aspects of their micro biomes: makes sense, doesn’t it? even pets in the household matter!) and clearly by the diet a person consumes.
Microbiome researchers collect samples from various sites on an individual’s body and in turn sequence these organisms, creating a huge data base. Some very exciting correlations are emerging from this field: for example, the wider the diversity of the microbiome, the more likely you are to have a stronger immune system. In addition, certain microbiomes are more likely to be associated with obesity, diabetes, auto-immune disorders and depression. This begs the question: which comes first, the microbiome or the factors that shape it? Actually, the intestines of a newborn infant are sterile in utero and are soon populated by microbes. Again, this is shaped by genetics, birth process, home environment and diet, amongst other things.
Factors that disrupt this environment include antibiotics, stress, eating a diet high in processed foods and low in fiber and variety, food poisoning, etc. Antibiotics are truly miraculous when we need them to fight certain infections, but too often they have been over-prescribed in the U.S.: the average child by the age of 18 has taken between 10-20 courses of antibiotics( I know I sure took many courses, as I had recurrent tonsillitis and ear infections). This trend does seem to be changing , thankfully, due to a greater awareness that many of these prescriptions are unnecessary. Farmers have long used antibiotics on their farm animals to help them gain weight(it is not understood how these are related just yet) but that should give us pause: can this be another reason for the epidemic of obesity we are seeing in our country?? If we are consuming meat that contains antibiotics, what are the implications on our health and well-being? This is yet another reason to choose animal products raised without hormones and antibiotics; thankfully this has become much easier in the past few years.
I believe the next 5-10 years will be incredibly exciting ones in terms of research on the gut and the implications our ‘gut health’ will have on our overall health and well-being. The expression ” You are what you eat” rings truer every day. Stay tuned for more ways to make sure that YOUR gut is healthy in the coming weeks.