Adrian here! Our microbiome is the collection of bacteria and other microscopic critters that live on and inside us (mostly in the gut). The first surprising thing is that the majority of these critters are actually friendly and help us in MANY ways.
The microbiome is sometimes called the ‘forgotten organ’ of our body. Calling our microbiome an ‘organ’ is recognition that, like the heart or lungs, it performs important functions that we couldn’t live without.
However our poor little gut bugs haven’t received much recognition for this help over the years. This is largely because our scientific understanding of the microbiome has only really taken off in the last 15 years or so. We’re only just beginning to appreciate how important it is.
In fact, it’s when the friendly gut bugs stop helping us that we’re given a lesson in just how vital they are. We find that we have become sick, fat, inflamed and depressed, and we’re thinking: ‘come back critters, all is forgiven, I’m sorry for wiping you all out with antibiotics and junk food!’
Now I’ll hand over to one of our resident clinical nutritionists and gut health coaches, Naomi Langford-Archer, to break it down for us.
What’s the purpose of our microbiome? If you were asked what the role of your heart, liver, eyes or ears were, I’m pretty sure you would have a good answer. Can the same be said for your microbiome?
Bacteria are everywhere, often existing in harmony with other living things. Plants, for example, are home to lots of good bacteria which help protect them.
Should the plant come into contact with harmful invading bacteria, the naturally residing good bacteria produce chemicals to destroy the invaders, thereby saving the plant’s life.
The same is true for us. The friendly bacteria in our microbiome produce conditions that are unfavourable for potentially pathogenic or harmful bacteria.
People think that bacteria are purely bad for us but the truth is that many strains of bacteria have evolved to live in harmony with us. We provide a home to them and in return they protect us. In biology this is called ‘symbiosis’ and it occurs in EVERY plant and animal alive on the planet.
The ways that these bacteria help us are many and varied. They provide huge benefits to our gut, immune system, metabolism, brain and entire health. So here are just five surprising things are microbiome does for us:
1. It guides our immune system
It does this by: –
a) communicating with immune cells
Recent scientific studies have revealed the surprising fact that our immune system struggles to differentiate friend from foe without the help of friendly bacteria. This leads to a whole raft of problems.
We develop allergies, asthma, food intolerances and, at the more severe end of the scale, autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis or psoriasis where our immune system attacks our own body.
We look at this more in Supercharge Your Body To Crush Autoimmune
b) reducing inflammation
Bacteria feed on undigested fibre in our gut, producing something known as short chain fatty acids (SCFA’s) which are vital to optimal gut health. SCFA’s protect our gut lining, reducing inflammation.
The process of guiding the immune system to respond correctly to threats also helps to reduce inflammation throughout our body.
When our immune system stops treating pollen, peanuts or own body as a threat, this switches off the unnecessary inflammatory response. Take a look at Inflammation: Putting Out The Fire
2. It defends the body against invaders
It does this by: –
a) acting as a barrier to the bad guys
The beneficial bacteria that line our entire intestinal tract literally act as a protective barrier. They help prevent harmful chemicals, toxins, pathogens and undigested food passing into our blood stream and doing us harm.
b) killing off harmful bacteria
Our friendly gut bugs keep us safe by secreting lactic acid into our gut to create an acidic environment in which nasty pathogenic bacteria cannot survive.
Some friendly bacteria also do battle with invading pathogens, controlling their numbers and preventing the baddies from taking over.
3. It helps in regulating our weight
Beneficial gut bacteria affect our hunger and satiety hormones as well as fat storage hormones. Scientific studies show that without enough friendly gut bugs on board, our metabolism malfunctions.
One surprising result is that we end up extracting MORE calories from food than we would do otherwise, leading to weight gain.
Beneficial bacteria also reduce cravings for sweet, starchy foods.
We look at this in more detail here: Overweight and Malnourished at The Same Time
4. It reduces the risk of depression and other mental health conditions
90% of our body’s serotonin (the ‘happy hormone’) is made by these beneficial bacteria.
In this way our microbiome plays a vital role in reducing the risk of anxiety and depression.
We look at this more in Brain Health Begins In the Gut
5. It makes important vitamins that nourish our body, such as:
– vitamin K, which is required for normal blood clotting and reduces risk of bone loss, something that’s particularly important for post-menopausal women
– vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), which is important in alleviating conditions such as asthma and other respiratory disorders and allergies as well as stress and anxiety
– folate, which helps in maintaining a healthy heart and lowers the risk of depression. It’s also important in decreasing the risk of birth defects so is vital before and during pregnancy.
– Vitamin B1 (thiamine) promotes a healthy nervous system, skin, hair, mouth and liver. It also improves the body’s ability to cope with stress.
– Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is proven to help prevent headaches and migraines
– Vitamin B3 (niacin) is important in energy production
– Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) maintains heathy blood vessels and protects eye health
– Vitamin B12 prevents memory loss and lowers the risk of neurodegenerative disease.
Patients with low levels of beneficial bacteria are often deficient in these important vitamins, but by restoring their gut health these vital vitamins can return to normal levels.
These vitamins that are made by our friendly gut bugs aren’t just ‘nice to have’, we really need them! They’re important for how our body heals and functions on a day to basis. Without them our quality of life can be seriously impaired.
Caring for our gut bugs
Modern-day life negatively affects our microbiome in a multitude of different ways.
For example, the huge increase in processed foods, sugar, antibiotics, bottle-feeding instead of breast-feeding our babies, as well as a decrease in the consumption of probiotic rich foods, have all taken their toll on our poor little gut bugs.
If our microbiome is unbalanced and we don’t have enough of the good guys to look after us, we can wind up with a nasty combination of problems such as eczema, asthma, inability to lose weight, depression, anxiety and autoimmune conditions.
The good news is that these conditions can be reversed by healing our gut!