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What is the Microbiome?
The word microbiome is the collection of microbes that inhabit an environment, creating a mini-ecosystem. Our microbiome is made up of symbiotic, commensal and pathogenic bacteria, fungi and viruses.
They exist in unique to you blends and inhabit everything from our skin, genitals, mouths, eyes and our intestines. The clusters of bacteria from different areas of the body are known as microbiota, your skin microbiota, oral microbiota, vaginal microbiota and gut microbiota.
Some of these bacteria, the commensal – are along for a free ride while the symbiotic bacteria offer a mutually beneficial relationship and in much smaller numbers, pathogens – disease-causing microbes. Pathogens, however, do not always cause disease, and some in fact have beneficial effects.
What scientists understand is that the makeup and overall health of your microbiome as a whole determines whether pathogens in the gut coexist peacefully, or cause disease.
These bacteria make up an essential piece of our biological puzzle – one meticulously constructed through millions of years of natural selection and one that remained largely misunderstood.
Less than a decade ago, the species of bacteria that scientists had discovered as indigenous cohabitants of the human body numbered only 200. Now the estimates are that more than 10,000 different microbial species occupy our microbiome.
How does it benefit us?
The communities in our microbiome carry out a variety of vital functions for our health and well-being and survival. In our immune system, the microbiome establishes parameters in which our bodies decide whether or not something is friend or foe. It maintains harmony, balance, and order amongst its own communities, ensuring that opportunistic pathogens are kept to a minimum, while also keeping the immune system from attacking itself.
It is the first, second and third line of defense, our skin, then our mucus membranes, and then our gut, providing a barrier that is able to be modified to suit our needs and unique environments.
The microbiota is responsible for the breakdown and absorption of nutrients. Without it all of our food intake would not only be indigestible, we would be incapable of extracting the critical nutritional compounds.Our symbiotic friends not only provide this service, but also secrete beneficial chemicals as a natural part of their metabolic cycle.
Where does our microbiome come from?
As infants we come into this world with a blank sheet of paper, waiting our first contact with the microscopic organisms of our world. Our first exposure is through the birth canal, followed by a nurturing concoction of mother’s milk. This is nature’s way of establishing the foundation on which we will build our microbiome. Family, diet, and environmental influence throughout our formative years cultivate an ecosystem which plays a starring role in our health for a lifetime.
Why is the microbiome important?
Antibiotics and our obsessive nature to sterilize our environments have caused a significant rise in gut-related illnesses and this is forcing the medical community to explore this aspect of human biology.
Research has uncovered a delicate web connecting our gut flora to every process in our body. Because of this, the imbalances in our microbiome have been implicated in many health issues, including immune health, psychological well-being, and some of the most chronic health issues of our times.
Research surrounding one such connection, called the gut-brain axis, has the potential to revolutionize the way psychologists worldwide support mental and emotional well being.
Methods on how to influence the microbiome are flooding medical literature. Trading gut bacteria has become the latest focus for treatments, being successfully utilized as a means to treat antibiotic resistant infections and being considered as a potential means of treating obesity.
As our understanding of our microbiome’s impact on our health as both individuals and as a species grows, so does the realization that current bacteria-phobic trends must come to an end.
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