Food Science With Foley: What’s A “Microbiome”?

Elizabeth Health Professional

bowel_1.pngIllustration: Sonya Korshenboym

You’ve probably heard about it. It’s in all the hot scientific articles and there are entire conferences devoted to its discovery. But what exactly is a microbiome? Strictly speaking, the microbiome is the environment of bacteria that live inside/on you. But don’t reach straight for the antibiotics! This special ecosystem that subsists off of you is highly important for your health. You have a microbiome on your skin, in your gut, and in your mouth. Today we will focus on the microbiome in your digestive tract. The microbiome has been linked to many aspects of health, from cognition to cardiovascular disease, and is particularly important regarding digestive health. Some scientists even classify it as an unofficial endocrine organ!

 

The microbiome develops from birth and stabilizes around three years old and is most affected by antibiotic use and nutrition. The microbiome of a vegan looks completely different from an omnivore as well as a vegetarian. There are also microbial differences between men and women, and differences between the young and the elderly.

 

This is a particularly interesting subject not only because of how profoundly the microbiome appears to affect the rest of our bodily functions, from hormone production to creatine metabolism but also because we are still classifying the microbiome as a whole. That’s right: we are still searching for the answer for what a healthy microbial system really looks like! There are two main reasons we haven’t been able to draw any specific conclusions: only 1/3 of the human microbiome is universally shared, and the other 2/3 is specific to the individual. Talk about a hard case to crack! The second reason is that we’ve just recently been able to even test for the bacteria in the gut using the 16S gene present in all bacterial species. We are still developing new ways to not only test for what is there but what is actively contributing to specific aspects of health and disease. What we do know is that microbial diversity appears to be an important factor for health, that beneficial bacteria need to outnumber pathogenic bacteria, and the gut barrier needs to remain healthy and intact or all of the bacteria starts to harm more than it helps.

 

Ways that you can keep your gut healthy is by increasing your intake of fiber! Fiber acts as a prebiotic by feeding healthy bacteria, but not pathogenic bacteria. Neglecting proper fiber intake results in the bacteria eating away at your mucus lining, thus leaving your colon open to infection! It also makes you constipated, and no one wants that. Avoid artificial sweeteners, as they are toxic to your microbiome, and cause an inflammatory response. As for probiotics, or beneficial bacteria that you can take in capsule form, those are still up for debate! Some studies have shown that they help constipated individuals, as well as people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, while others have shown that they do nothing.

 

Stay tuned for more posts about gut health!

 

Elizabeth Foley is an FSU Ph.D. Candidate in Nutrition and Food Science. Posts and blogs created by Elizabeth on the Wealth Meet Health community are for informational purposes only and are not meant to take the place of your relationship with a health professional. For personal health considerations, please consult a health professional directly.