Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the term microbiome, which refers to a collection of microorganisms or “good bacteria” that live inside your gut. The microbiome is a relatively new term in the nutrition world, and it’s rapidly becoming an increasingly important field of study among scientists. Millions of dollars are being poured into research to reach a better understanding of the microbiome and its role in disease. Here’s what you should know:
About the microbiome
The human body contains 10-100 trillion microbial cells, which consist of about 1000 different strains of bacteria that make up the microbiome. It exists in the skin and mouth, but the largest and most diverse part of the microbiome is found in the gut. Beginning at birth, a human’s microbiome is formed with the microorganisms from the mother’s birth canal and skin. Breast milk is also rich with good bacteria that populate the baby’s gut. By two years old, the adult microbiome is almost fully established, but it can change throughout the lifetime. An individual’s microbiome is not just a random collection of bacteria; each organism works together to create a thriving healthy environment inside the body.
Are all microbiomes the same?
Studies suggest that an individual’s microbiome is unique to them. However, your skin microbiome will be similar to other peoples’ skin microbiomes, and your gut microbiome will be similar to others’ gut microbiomes. The Human Microbiome Project, funded by the National Institute for Health, was established in 2008 to characterize the strains in the human microbiome and understand their role in human health and disease.
How can the microbiome affect your health?
While we often think of bacteria as potential pathogens, certain bacteria like E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Clostridium difficile are found in healthy individuals and only cause illness when the microbiome is disturbed or imbalanced. When that occurs, a variety of health complications may ensue. Preliminary research suggests that a stressed microbiome may be associated with gastrointestinal conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease, autoimmune diseases like Celiac disease or asthma or even larger health complications, like obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.
Such imbalances may occur after taking an antibiotic, which disturbs the normal microbial gut community. Other risk factors include a poor diet, lack of sleep or excessive stress.
How can you create a healthier microbiome?
Eat a diet that is rich in ‘prebiotics,’ fiber found in fruits and vegetables, which induces the growth of healthy bacteria. Adding probiotics—aka live bacteria—to your diet can also help maintain a flourishing microbiome. Probiotics are naturally found in fermented foods like yogurt, cheese, and sauerkraut, and they are also available in supplemental form.
When choosing a probiotic supplement, look for one that has millions of live cultures from multiple strains. Because supplements are not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, make sure you choose a trusted brand, like Renew Life’s Ultimate Flora with 50 Billion live cultures and 10 probiotic strains per capsule.
Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D., is a media dietitian, food and nutrition writer, spokesperson and blogger at Nutrition à la Natalie.