The study of bacteria has interested doctors and researchers for centuries. However, that interest was primarily focused on “bad” bacteria—pathogens that make us sick and cause disease. Over the last 20 years, there has been a tremendous increase in the study of “good” bacteria and its effect on our guts.
In 1990, approximately 125 studies were published on the topic of microbiome (a term used to reference the bacteria, viruses, and archaea that live on us and in us). In 2009, studies of microbiome numbered over 500. Why all this interest now? Hippocrates, considered to be the father of western (modern) medicine, said in 400 B.C that “death sits in the bowels.” We’ve long recognized the importance of the intestines in human health. But now we have state-of-the-art technology that allows us to actually study gastrointestinal microbiota.
Bacterial cells outnumber human cells 10-1. They colonize every surface of the body exposed to the external environment. They are on our skin, reproductive organs/urinary system, respiratory system, and gastrointestinal tract (GIT). The most colonized of the four is the GIT—your colon alone contains over 70% of all the bacteria in your body.
Where Do They Come From?
The only time you were “bacteria-free” was when you were in the womb. Bacterial colonization begins at childbirth. When a baby travels through the birth canal, it is exposed to microbes (bacteria) present in mom’s gut and vagina. If mom chooses to breastfeed, her milk provides another healthy dose of microbes. Both of those exposures are extremely protective to the child, as well as supportive of the establishment of a healthy immune system. Last, but not least, is exposure to microbes from the child’s environment; such as household dirt and bacteria from other family members, friends, and/or pets. It also includes exposure to bacteria from outside sources. By the time a child turns three, his or her microbiome is pretty well established.
Why Should We Care?
Establishing a healthy microbiome is important because:
• It supports your immune system,
• It helps protect you from disease,
• It helps detoxify your body,
• It affects how much you weigh.
An unbalanced microbiome may:
• Increase risk for inflammation
• Increase risk for chronic disease
• Increase risk for obesity, asthma, and allergies
How Can You Protect–and Increase–Your Gut Bugs?
1. Phase out the antibacterial products. Your home is not a surgical center. Continue to hand wash frequently to reduce risk for illness, but use regular soap and water (not antibacterial products). Family members don’t need to be wet-wiped every day.
2. Go outside. Open the windows of your house or office whenever possible. Fresh air and sunlight are nature’s natural antibiotics. They will protect you far more than keeping your house hermetically sealed and sanitized.
3. Eat less of the foods that kill off healthy bacteria. They include, but are not limited to, processed foods, sugar, saturated fat, and meat products that come from animals fed antibiotics.
4. Use antibiotics as little as possible. Antibiotics are great for killing bad bacteria, such as strep. However, when you use an antibiotic, you also kill off a lot of good bacteria in your gut. If an antibiotic is absolutely necessary, use it. Otherwise, let the illness (such as cold or flu) run its course.
5. Eat more probiotics. Yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, pickles, sourdough bread, and kimchi are some examples.
6. Eat more plant foods! Plant foods contain fiber, which gives your gut bacteria something to chew on, break down, digest and extract nutrients from (fermentation). Fermentation produces by-products such as short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA provide energy to your intestinal cells and help keep the lining of your colon healthy.
Growing a Body of Knowledge
Remember Pig Pen from the Charley Brown comic series? How about the John Travolta movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble?” Establishing a healthy “microbiome medium” lies somewhere between living in perpetual dust clouds and a germ-free bubble. In the next installment of Microbiome: the Mystery and Magic of Your Gut Bugs, we will look at the connection between obesity and your microbiome.
Donna Green, Family & Consumer Sciences Educator, Ohio State University Extension, Erie County, Erie Basin EERA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewed by: Liz Smith, Family & Consumer Sciences Educator, Ohio State University Extension