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The Microbiome, Health Phenomenon of the Future?

by Emily Melby, RDN, Allergy Associates of La Crosse

Hippocrates, the Greek physician who was deemed the “Father of Modern Medicine,” may be best known for his quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates also said, “All disease starts in the gut.” And as modern medicine continues to evolve, this could not seem truer.

Gut health is a hot topic among researchers, health care professionals and consumers alike. Many patients with allergic issues struggle with gut health. Emerging research is connecting an imbalance of the microbiota in the gut microbiome to multiple disease states (including allergy), as we will see in a bit.

The microbiome is defined as the environment in which microbes and their genes subside or live. While the microbiota consists of all of the microbes found in a specific community.

The majority of our microbes consist of bacteria and viruses, but also includes archaea, protists, and fungi which are comprised of yeasts and molds. When thinking about gut health, the colon (otherwise known as the large intestine) is the microbiome that supports the various microbiota which reside there.

It is important to note that the majority of microbes are non-pathogenic (or not disease causing) and live in harmony within our body. And microbes are not just contained to the gut. Though the gut is the richest source of microbiota, microbial communities live in and on all different areas of your body including the skin, mouth, vagina, and bowels. Each specific body area supports different types of microbiota and each individual microbiota has a precise action and requires a particular environment to survive.

Our microbiomes begin establishment in the womb and during the birthing process. Prior research alleged infants were born sterile and became inoculated with microbes during the birthing process. But recent research proposes the establishment of microbiota in the womb. These new developments have found that the placenta and meconium, or babies first stool, both contain selective microbes.

Microbial communities can vary greatly among infants. Mom’s maternal diet, baby’s mode of delivery (vaginal versus c-section), birth environment (hospital versus home), antibiotic exposure during birth or after, and infant diet (breastfed versus formula fed), all influence what type of microbiota baby is colonized with. Introduction of solid foods, the home environment, and even illness can shift microbial populations. Populations of microbes are the least diverse during this time.

Once a child is three years old, the microbiome begins to resemble the more diverse adults’. Interestingly, our microbiota adapts to our general environment. Our age, gender, the food we eat, the medications we take, our hygiene practices, and even the environment and climate we work and live in can alter the types of microbiota living among us. These circumstances affect each person individually. Every individual has a distinct and diverse population and quantity of microbial communities when compared to others. Keep in mind that similar microbial species tend to populate the same general areas or body systems of each individual person.

So what is the big deal?
Emerging research finds our microbiomes and the microbiota that they support greatly impact overall health.

Our beneficial microbiota may contribute to health in numerous ways. The microbiome works together with the immune system to protect us from pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms, support digestion and meal absorption, decrease gas and bloating, assist in synthesizing vitamins, and may even help reduce cholesterol.

It’s when an imbalance of the beneficial versus potentially pathogenic gut microbiota occurs that the trouble begins. The gut microbiome contains thousands of different microbial species. When gastrointestinal issues occur, you can be certain dysbiosis is taking place. Dysbiosis is an imbalance of the beneficial versus unfavorable gut microbes, which then create an uneven playing field in your digestive system. Dysbiosis can occur for multiple reasons including exposure to environmental toxins, drugs, and pathogens. When this imbalance happens, our bodies are unable to support complete health, opening the door for pathogenic microbiota to take hold which can potentially result in carcinogen production, diarrhea and constipation, production of toxins, liver damage and intestinal infections.

Some health conditions currently found to be connected to gut health include digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, which consists of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. But it does not stop there! Much of the research on the microbiome is focused on obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes; while allergies, autism and autoimmune disease have also been implicated when dysbiosis occurs. Of course more research is needed to confirm the relationship of the gut microbiome and its implication to these disease states. At this point, we don’t have a confirmed cause and effect relationship that is known, but common patterns in the types and quantities of microbiota have been found when measured in those with the above disease processes.

Could there be a connection to our gut microbiome and these disease processes?
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 60-70 million people are affected with digestive disorders, while one third of Americans are obese, and over 29 million have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. With so many people suffering from these disorders, it definitely makes sense to continue to investigate the microbiome and its association to health.

This subject will continue to evolve so keep your eyes and ears open for future information on this hot topic. And join me for future Allergychoices blogs as I discuss how we can support our gut health with pre and probiotics.

References:

  1. Bull MJ, Plummer NT. Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease. Integrative Medicine 2014;13:17-22.
  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Digestive Diseases Statistics for the United States. November 2014. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/Pages/digestive-diseases-statistics-for-the-united-states.aspx. Accessed May 2, 2017.
  3. Carding S, Verbeke K, Vipond DT, Corfe BM, Owen LJ. Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota in disease. Microb Ecol in Health Dis 2015;26:191.
  4. Genetic Science Learning Center. The Human Microbiome. August 2014. Available at: http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/microbiome/. Accessed May 4, 2017.
  5. Wallace TC, Guarner F, Madsen K, Cabana MC, Gibson G, Hentges E, Sanders ME. Human gut microbiota and its relationship to health and disease. Nut Reviews 2011;69:392-403.
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