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What is the Microbiome?

Your microbiome and disease risk are linked. Trillions of bacteria live in our bodies in a symbiotic relationship.1

So, what does this symbiotic relationship look like?

This relationship is one in which bacteria rely on our bodies to exist, and we support each other’s health and daily needs. For example, our large intestines provide a home to many bacteria.

Some of these bacteria are responsible for creating neurotransmitters and vitamins, some of which help our bodies absorb antioxidants to decrease inflammation.1

However, not all bacteria benefit our health. Many bacteria do not interact with us in a symbiotic relationship, instead, they can be harmful and lead to disease.  

The overall bacteria living on or inside of our bodies are called the microbiome.1 Our microbiomes are diverse and are comprised of smaller segments called microbiota.

The specific types of bacteria found in our microbiomes may be affected by infectious microorganisms, what we eat and drink, our genetics, how we were born (vaginal or cesarean) and if we were breastfed, and of course, our lifestyles.1,2

Unfortunately, most types of bacteria that make up our microbiota and microbiome are still unknown to researchers.1

The bacteria’s functions and roles in maintaining our health or causing disease are still under investigation.

Currently, it is known that certain changes to our microbiota affect our microbiome and can lead to health complications. These health complications range from 

  • digestive health issues like irritable bowel syndrome,
  • cancer,
  • metabolic dysfunction like obesity,
  • cardiovascular disease,
  • and dementia.1

What information does the microbiome give us?

Only recently, it has been difficult to appreciate the complexity of the microbiome and disease relationship.

Researchers lacked the technology to study the bacteria living inside us and how these microorganisms interact and function.3 Fortunately, technological advancements continue to help the understanding of the microbiome.3

Researchers recently published an article in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, reviewing the current state of microbiome research.1

The authors concluded that analysis of an individual’s unique microbiome would allow for truly personalized medicine.1

If the analysis could be done in clinics versus large research institutes, the improvement of precision diagnostics and treatments could be expedited for patients.2

Testing of the microbiome and microbiota may also help physicians determine if a patient has an increased susceptibility to certain diseases.2

For instance, a recent study found a link between certain bacteria in our microbiome and a cardiovascular condition called atherosclerosis .3

How can we take control of our microbiome?

Each of us has different microbiota and microbiomes that need personalized attention.1

Thankfully, it has been shown that there are certain bacteria that most of us can benefit from, and we can help nurture these bacteria. In addition, aspects of our daily lives can influence our microbiome and disease risk.

For example, changing our diet and participating in regular exercise can alter the composition of healthy bacteria in us. 

Dietary changes and the microbiome

How exactly can a change in the diet lead to a change in our microbiome and risk for disease?

Although the mechanisms behind this are not fully understood, individuals who switched certain dietary patterns, like eating more fermented and high-fiber foods had dramatic changes in their microbiomes over time.1

These changes in bacteria had a notable impact on the health of these individuals.1 Some of the beneficial foods include:

  • sauerkraut and kimchi,
  • chicory root,
  • oats,
  • and kefir.

Interestingly, some diseases that were once thought to be caused by eating certain foods have now been linked to problems with the microbiome.

For instance, researchers are coming to understand that conditions like celiac disease and inflammatory bowel syndrome are strongly linked to the bacteria in our gut and colon.1

Exercise effects on the microbiome

Exercise can help increase bacterial diversity.1

A recent study found that the microbiomes of individuals who actively exercise contain more health-promoting bacteria.1,4

An important aspect of the exercise benefits to the microbiome is that the exercise must be consistent, and varied and that the exercise program includes enough recovery time.

Other lifestyle factors and the microbiome

Negative lifestyle factors can decrease the diversity of our microbiome and lead to poor health outcomes.

For example, the thousands of chemicals in cigarette smoke, get deposited in the lungs and gut. These substances can harm the diversity of our microbiota and microbiomes, making us more susceptible to infections and inflammation.1

What does the future hold for microbiome research?

Evidence continues to mount relating to diseases and an unhealthy microbiome. Improving our understanding of microbiomes will be an important area of future research.

It is estimated that bacteria can perform up to 35.5 million different functions, and only 0.02% of these have been characterized. This leaves much room for discoveries into how microbiomes play a key role in our health!

It is essential to contact your healthcare provider for any concerns about the relationship between diseases, microbiota, and the microbiome. 

References

  1. Mousa WK, Chehadeh F, Husband S. Recent advances in understanding the structure and function of the human microbiome. Front Microbiol. 2022;13:825338. Published 2022 Feb 3. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2022.825338
  2. Yadav M, Chauhan NS. Overview of the rules of the microbial engagement in the gut microbiome: a step towards microbiome therapeutics. J Appl Microbiol. 2021;130(5):1425-1441. doi:10.1111/jam.14883
  3. Eloe-Fadrosh EA, Rasko DA. The human microbiome: from symbiosis to pathogenesis. Annu Rev Med. 2013;64:145-163. doi:10.1146/annurev-med-010312-133513
  4. Bressa C, Bailén-Andrino M, Pérez-Santiago J, et al. Differences in gut microbiota profile between women with active lifestyle and sedentary women. PLoS One. 2017;12(2):e0171352. Published 2017 Feb 10. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171352
  5. Starke R, Capek P, Morais D, Callister SJ, Jehmlich N. The total microbiome functions in bacteria and fungi. J Proteomics. 2020;213:103623. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jprot.2019.103623
Andrew Mihalache
Andrew Mihalache
Andrew Mihalache is an enthusiastic learner with a specialization in human physiology at the University of Western Ontario. He possesses a strong passion for epidemiology and medical research and aspires to become a clinician-researcher dedicated to innovating patient healthcare in the future.

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