The gut microbiome: what you should know
What does gut health have to do with your wellbeing? Plenty.
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably thought of microorganisms — including bacteria, viruses, and fungi — primarily as germs. There’s a good reason for that. The focus in health and medicine is often on the bacteria and viruses that cause infection and make people sick with the common cold, flu, strep, or worse. If you or your kids come down with an infection, you might go to the doctor for antibiotics. You might slather your hands and your homes with sanitizers and disinfectants.
Hand-washing and antibiotics (as needed) are useful in fighting bacteria that make you sick. But, it turns out that most bacteria aren’t really harmful. Many of the microorganisms we come into contact with every day probably don’t do much of anything to us. If they did, we’d be fighting infections all the time since bacteria are literally everywhere.
But, these days, scientists and doctors are increasingly coming to appreciate that our relationships with bacteria are a lot more complex and varied than that. To stay healthy, the goal isn’t to kill all germs. In fact, some beneficial bacteria are essential to keeping our bodies happy and healthy in complicated ways that researchers are learning more about all the time.
Scientists call the collection of microorganisms that live in and on the human body the human microbiome. “Micro“ means small and “biome” means a naturally occurring community of organisms. So, your microbiome is the diverse community of microorganisms that makes its home both on and inside of you.
Where are these bacteria and how many are there?
Your microbiome is quite literally all over the surfaces and inner linings of your body. Scientists have studied the microbiome by swabbing samples from many parts of the mouth and throat: the gums, inside of the cheek, tonsils, and teeth. They’ve taken samples of the skin microbiome from interesting spots, too, including behind the ears, the inner elbow, and the nostrils.
The digestive tract and especially our intestines are home to the bulk of what are arguably the most important microbiomes for general health. Scientists often call this collection of microorganisms the gut microbiome. Your gut likely contains about 1,000 species of bacteria, each of which has roughly 2,000 genes. That means our gut microbiomes collectively include about two million genes, many of which can do things our 20,000 or so human genes can’t do.
So, how many microorganisms are there? The simple answer is a whole lot! While some researchers have estimated that the bacterial, viral, and fungal cells in the body outnumber human cells by 10 to 1, others claim that the number of human cells and microbial cells in an average body is likely to be about equal. Despite those variations, each of us is still carrying around trillions of them. If you could gather them all up and put them on a scale, the microorganisms from a 200-pound adult could weigh up to six pounds. Some scientists like to point out that humans aren’t really organisms — we’re superorganisms.
What’s a “healthy” gut microbiome?
Researchers in the last decade have sampled microbiomes from thousands of healthy people to learn what makes a “normal” microbiome. As it turns out, each person’s microbiome is unique.
Healthy adult gut microbiomes are both relatively stable and diverse. They usually include representatives from groups called Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes, but several others, too. Despite variation in the particular beneficial bacterial species present, healthy microbiomes fulfill important functions that contribute to our health.
The gut microbiome has important influences on the development of a healthy immune system. It’s essential to our ability to break down certain foods, including fiber, and produce essential nutrients.
While a well-balanced gut microbiome supports a healthy body, the opposite is also true. Research has linked imbalances in the microbiome to a wide variety of chronic conditions, including metabolic disorders, atherosclerosis (a build-up of fatty material in the arteries), obesity, and asthma.
The gut microbiome even contributes to our mental health. Studies suggest a role for our bacterial inhabitants in anxiety, depression, and trauma-related disorders. You’d be hard-pressed to find an aspect of our health that isn’t influenced in one way or another by the human microbiome.
How do diet and other factors influence my gut microbiome?
Under ideal circumstances, our mothers pass on a healthy microbiome to each of us at birth. Your microbiome then develops over time as you grow into adulthood. The microbiome of a child is different from that of an adult in terms of the species present.
Your lifestyle, including whether or not you have pets, and the place where you live will influence your gut microbiome. It will vary depending on whether and how often you take antibiotics.
Your gut microbiome also will vary a lot depending on what you normally eat. This means that you can shape your gut microbiome in particular ways by eating differently. In fact, a study has shown that a sudden shift from a plant-based diet rich in fruits, veggies, grains, and beans, to an animal-based diet loaded with meats, eggs, and cheese produced big changes in the gut microbiome within 24 hours. The findings show that your dietary habits are shaping your gut microbiome in ways that may be better or worse for your health.
Sometimes people eat certain foods or take supplements intended to support a healthy gut microbiome. Foods or supplements intended to encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria are called prebiotics, while foods or supplements containing living bacteria are referred to as probiotics.
Probiotic foods like yogurt might help with certain conditions, such as diarrhea or yeast infections. But keep in mind that the probiotics or probiotic foods you’d find at the grocery store today generally aren’t specifically formulated to support a healthy human microbiome.
Why is Pendulum focused on microbiome solutions?
While there’s a lot more to discover, it’s clear that healthy microbiomes and microbiome-directed interventions may be a key to better human health and well-being. Our goal is to develop medical probiotics that are specially designed to establish and support a healthier microbiome in specific ways based on the best available evidence. We’re starting with a focus on restoring functionality lacking in people with type 2 diabetes.
Click here to learn more about Pendulum Glucose Control, the only medical probiotic to help manage type 2 diabetes through the gut microbiome.