Micro what? Referred to as the microbiome, it is the collective term that labels the trillions of microbes that share the lives of every individual on this planet. These microscopic partners work within our bodies to assist us in digesting our food, keep our immune systems in shape, and crowd out harmful microbes that bring disorders and disease. They are the ‘good’ microbes in our lives provided they remain in balance.
Our gastrointestinal tract contains a large community of these microbes, up to a thousand different bacteria species, which collectively weigh between one and three pounds per individual. In recent years, scientists have put together a growing collection of evidence that many of these bugs in our human ecosystem may have a major effect on our health and well-being. Also, scientists now tell us that most of the microbes in our gut are symbiotic, that is to say that they provide benefits to their human host while at the same time receiving benefits.
The key functions of these microbes in our gut is to metabolize (convert) nutrients into energy, maintain the integrity of the tissue lining our intestines and keep our immune system in good working order, while protecting the human host from invasion by pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms that cause disease.
For each of us our microbial communities are shaped and influenced by the foods that we eat and the medications we ingest, giving rise to important ramifications for our health if imbalances occur.
Some scientific researchers maintain that poor diets, an over abundance of processed foods, antibiotics, and excessively sanitized habitats has led to gentrification of the Western gut. The implications of this are that changes in our intestinal microbe communities may disrupt normal intestinal function, allowing an overgrowth in pathogens and subsequent infection.
Research has shown that our intestinal microbial communities train and condition our immune systems in number of ways. Pathogen-fighting antibodies are increased in number by friendly microbes that stimulate immune tissue in our gut. These friendly microbes teach our immune system to recognize and eliminate unhealthy invaders while leaving friendly bacteria alone. An added advantage, is that through this process the immune system learns to recognize friendly bacteria and it becomes less probable to attack its own cells in error as an auto-immune reaction.
Each of us has some clever stuff happening on the inside!
And, that’s not all! Our intestinal microbes help digest foods our intestines can’t digest on their own. These bacteria are especially talented for digesting ‘carbs’; sugars, fiber and starches, creating enzymes that break them up to release nutrients that can be digested by our intestines which would otherwise have passed through undigested and been wasted. According to researchers our friendly gut-based microbial communities generate up to 10% of the additional calories that we absorb from our food intake.
The digestive effect of these gut bacteria on nutrients in our food is to break them up into small molecules permitting them to better transfer to our blood stream. Now these nutrients can travel throughout our bodies to perform different functions on our health and well-being. For example nutrient and sugar molecules are transported to muscles and the liver to be stored and provide energy. Additionally, they affect how our bodies respond to insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. This has obvious implications for future treatments that may modify the microbiome to treat common diseases such as diabetes.
Of all the microbial communities we carry with us, those in the gut are especially influential as our digestive systems house two-thirds of our body’s immune cells. As the pathway for digestion, the GI tract must deal with a constant stream of food-related foreign microbes, which must be monitored and, if they are harmful, destroyed. To do this, our intestines have developed an extensive immune system, whose effects reach far beyond the gut itself.
For example if an imbalance in good microbes occurs, immune cells in the gut seem to be able to activate inflammatory cells throughout the body, including those in our joints. Researchers have shown that some patients with rheumatoid arthritis have benefitted from adopting a Mediterranean diet (high in fish, olive oil, and vegetables, and low in meat and saturated fats), though scientists don’t yet know exactly why this helps.
As a gastroenterologist having seen countless patients of different ages with different eating habits and in various states of health, it is clear to me that maintaining a healthy balance of microbes in our gut can make the difference between a well functioning digestive system and one that is not.
The starting point for optimizing our digestive health is being conscious that we each have our own microbiome and that we need to scrutinize our intake of the potential stressors of our gastrointestinal systems. What is our daily intake of caffeine, processed foods, fatty foods, alcohol, etc., and are any of these causing our digestive system to be upset at any time? If we spot that there are ‘triggers’, then we need to act.
Next up, I will be covering the ’10-year Effect’ in digestive health discovery and the latest research discoveries that will influence the diet of all those suffering IBS, NCGS, and badly balanced microbiome for the years to come.
Remember, you are what you eat!
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