What Is The Microbiome & Why Does It Matter?

By Carla Oates

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s likely you’ve heard about the importance of the gut microbiome—and know already that our gut is, in large part, responsible for our overall health, immunity, wellbeing and skin health.

But what exactly is the microbiome and why is it so important? Put simply, the gut microbiome is a living, breathing ecosystem that is home to the trillions of microorganisms that populate our digestive system. While there are many different types of microbes—including bacteria, fungi and yeasts—that live inside each one of us, our bacteria are the most abundant. In fact, our microbial cells outnumber our human cells—making us more bacteria than human. 

Even more remarkable is that it’s estimated that the human microbiota we each have over 1000 different bacterial species that make up our microbial community and each of these bacteria play a critical role in our overall human health and wellbeing. 

How Does Our Microbiome Develop?

To understand how our gut microbiome can impact our health and wellbeing—it’s important to first develop an understanding of how it develops. Before we are born, we can think of our microbiome as a completely blank canvas that takes around three years to fully develop. Everything we come into contact with—both before, during and after birth—helps to form our own unique bacterial blueprint and just like our fingerprints, each one of us has a slightly different microbial composition made up of a variety of different species depending on our environment and how our microbiome develops in our first years of life.

How we’re born—either vaginally or via Caesarean—directly impacts our microbiome, as does what we come into contact with and consume post-birth. This is why breastfeeding, for example, can be so beneficial as not only does breast milk contain beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacteria, but it also contains antibodies which helps to bolster the immune system. On the flipside, microbiome research suggests that early disruption to our gut microbiota may contribute in part to allergies like asthma, eczema or even our predisposition towards obesity. 

As we grow, evolve and age—so to does our microbiome, which means that we are able to impact and influence our microbes and our bacterial composition throughout our life. In much the same way, our microbes are also able to impact and influence our health, too. A healthy microbiome with a good balance of bacteria is known as eubiosis—whereas when an imbalance occurs—or dysbiosis—we can feel and experience the effects of this disruption in a myriad of ways. 

How Does The Microbiome Affect Our Health?

While one of the main roles of our microbiome is to process and digest the food we eat—helping us to absorb and assimilate key nutrients—this is just one of its many important roles. Our microbiome’s influence extends far beyond our gastrointestinal tract, helping us to “manufacture some vitamins, essential amino acids as well as other bioactive molecules that support our metabolic and immune health, brain function, skin health and mood.”

When dysbiosis occurs, we can experience a range of symptoms and health conditions that range from mild to serious—including headaches and fatigue, skin issues, autoimmune disorders, bloating and digestive problems and even allergies, mood disorders and chronic inflammation.

Many of the health and skin issues that manifest due to impaired gut health are caused by inflammation—which is our body’s immune response to threat. When our delicate gut lining becomes damaged or impaired—thanks to a poor diet or lifestyle influences such as stress, pollution, lack of sleep, overuse of medications or antibiotics—a condition known as leaky gut can occur which means the ordinarily tight junctions in our intestinal lining become “loose”, allowing endotoxins to escape into the bloodstream, thereby triggering inflammation. Given that more than 70 per cent of our immune system also lies within our gut, our microbiome can dramatically impact our overall immunity and ability to ward off pathogens.

How Can We Foster A Healthy Microbiome?

The good news is that our gut health and our microbiome can be positively influenced by becoming a good host—nurturing and nourishing our relationship with our gut on a daily basis. Research also shows that for a healthy and robust microbiome, microbial diversity is key.

There are countless ways to foster a healthy microbiome—but our diet, undoubtedly, has the most profound impact—with every mouthful either helping to heal our gut, or potentially harm it. Overall, it’s important to maintain an attitude of balance—both in terms of what we put on our plate as well as when we think of our microbes, as a balance of good, bad and relatively neutral bacteria is what will ensure the health of our microbiome. While it’s true that we want to avoid an imbalance of bad or pathogenic bacteria, our overall aim should be to strike a healthy balance between the different bacteria in our gut—and for them to live in symbiosis with us, as their host. 

Eat More Fibre

The right kind of fibre feeds our good gut microbes—while not eating enough, starves them. This is why it’s essential to fill up our plate with a diversity of fibre-rich plants to nourish the beneficial bacteria in our belly. Evidence suggests that fibre can actually repair and strengthen our gut lining as when fibre ferments in the large intestine, the byproducts produced by our gut bacteria—known as short-chain fatty acids—harbour anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating benefits. Short-chain fatty acids are also shown to have a positive effect on our metabolic and brain health, too—making fibre an even more vital part of a gut-healthy diet. Good sources of fibre include fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and oats. The best types of fibre to encourage the production of short-chain fatty acids are prebiotic like inulin (found in artichokes, garlic and onions), pectin (found in the skins of fruit like apples and pears) and resistant starch (found in grains and rice or potatoes that have been cooked and cooled).

Include Fermented Foods

Probiotic fermented foods are also a valuable tool in nurturing a healthy microbiome as they provide the gut with a healthy dose of beneficial bacteria. The process of fermentation uses bacteria and/or yeasts to help break down or ‘predigest’ foods—making the nutrients more bioavailable and easier for our bodies to digest. Probiotics (such as lactobacillus) also improve overall gut barrier function and provide a protective effect from pathogenic bacteria (for example, clostridium difficile)—but the postbiotic metabolites and enzymes produced by the fermentation process, also harbour incredible health benefits. In fact, research shows this genetic material may fight inflammation, help to bolster gut wall integrity, ward off pathogens and improve immune system function. To experience the benefits of probiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods, incorporate kimchi, sauerkraut, kvass, kefir and The Beauty Chef inner beauty powders and elixirs in your daily diet.

Remove Irritating & Inflammatory Foods

Just as it’s important to feed our microbiota foods that have a positive influence—it’s also essential to avoid foods that are irritating to our gut or have the potential to trigger inflammation or dysbiosis. Common foods that disrupt the microbiome include artificial sweeteners—which are thought to increase unhealthy bacteria in the gut—refined sugars and carbohydrates, preservatives, alcohol and for some people, gluten and dairy. Gliadin—a protein found in wheat—for example, has been found to increase intestinal permeability in healthy people but is particularly damaging for those with celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But for all of us, if we are intolerant, allergic to or simply find some foods more difficult to digest, it’s worth removing them from our diet in order to promote a healthier, more diverse, and more balanced human gut microbiome.

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