H for Health
The Revolution in Understanding Human Health
In the past few decades, the availability of new molecular research technologies has led to an explosion in our knowledge of a previously unexplored organ – the human gut microbiome. The discovery of the microbiome has changed how we see ourselves, very much like when we discovered that the Earth was not the center of the universe.
The Gut Microbiome and Its Importance in Human Health
The gut microbiome refers to the complex community of microorganisms that live within the large intestine, which is the last part of our gastrointestinal tract. It plays a vital role in human health. It directly influences every major body system including immunity, metabolism, hormonal balance, cognition and gene expression. Imbalances in the microbiome have been linked to a wide range of health problems.
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Defining Microbiome and Microbiota
The terms “ microbiome” and “microbiota” are often used interchangeably. By definition, the microbiome refers to the microorganisms AND their genes whereas the microbiota only refers to the microbes themselves.
The gut microbiome is composed of a wide range of different types of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other organisms. The majority of the microbes in the gut microbiome are bacteria, with more than thousand different species present. The average gut microbiome weighs approximately 2 kilograms which is more than our brain.
While humans have approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in our genome, the microbial genes in the gut microbiome number in the millions. Thus more than 99% of our DNA comes from microbes!
Each person has an entirely unique network of microbes. A person is first exposed to microorganisms as an infant, during delivery in the birth canal and through the mother’s breast milk. Later on, environmental exposures and diet can change one’s microbiome to be either beneficial to health or place one at greater risk for disease.
The gut microbiome is composed of both beneficial and potentially harmful bacteria.
The Role of Beneficial Bacteria and the Dangers of Dysbiosis
The beneficial bacteria – also called probiotics – help in digestion and absorption of nutrients. The beneficial bacteria also produce vitamins and other essential nutrients. Our food is also their food. Not every microbe thrives on the same food. Each dietary choice we make will empower a specific group of microbes. If we permanently remove a food group, the microbes that thrive on that food will starve into extinction. Our gut microbes respond quickly to a change in our diet. The lifespan of a microbe is only about 20 minutes. The composition of our microbiome can be changed quickly by eating foods healthy bacteria thrive on.
The beneficial bacteria transform the right kind of food – also called prebiotics – into health promoting, anti-inflammatory and cancer-suppressing compounds. These compounds are called postbiotics. In contrast, unhealthy food feeds harmful microbes which create compounds that lead to inflammation in our body.
The beneficial gut bacteria help to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut. Dysbiosis occurs when there is an imbalance in the gut microbiome, resulting in an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and a decrease in beneficial bacteria. Gut dysbiosis can lead to increased permeability of the intestinal barrier which is also called “leaky gut”.
This allows harmful bacteria and toxins to leak into the bloodstream, which in turn, can trigger an inflammatory response throughout the body. Chronic low-grade inflammation has been linked to a range of health problems, including autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, and coronary artery disease, cancer, and even mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
In our SHAPE Your Future film, ’10 Gut Microbiome Hacks’, we explore how lifestyle modifications can enhance your gut microbiome, paving the way to live a happier, healthier and more sustainable life.
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