By: Juliana Garcia, Microbiologist & Vivante Health Microbiome Director
The gurgle in the stomach, the sudden hot flash and wave of nausea… Not far behind is the clutching of your belly, the explosive feeling that sends you darting to the nearest bathroom, praying you make it in time.
Maybe you picked up a few bacterial stowaways on vacation from that little bit of tap water you used to brush your teeth, or was it that slightly “off” airport sushi you grabbed before boarding your plane?
If you were to take just a drop of that tap water and swab a petri dish, you might see something like this…
Looks pretty uneventful, huh?
Well, hopefully you’ve never been there, but if you have, you know exactly what kind of havoc just a few unwanted bacteria can wreak on your digestive system, your gag reflex, and your overall energy levels. Even if you’ve never personally dealt with food poisoning, you’ve no doubt heard the horror stories.
It’s clear what a huge impact tiny microbes, especially bacteria, can have on the human gut. But did you know that bacteria, along with a few fungi, yeasts, and viruses (most of whom don’t cause any illness), make up the unique microbiome living in every turn and fold of the human gut?
What exactly is the microbiome?
The microbes specific to any environment are referred to as microbiota, and all of the genes contained by each microbe in that environment are referred to as the microbiome. You might not know this, but there are many different types of microbiomes—skin microbiomes, oral microbiomes, vaginal microbiomes, soil microbiomes, and even ocean microbiomes. The terminology isn’t too important for this blog, but just for easy reference here’s a recap:
Feeling discouraged yet? The scientific terms and names are enough to make anyone want to throw up their hands in defeat, but stick with us. It’s about to get good…
Research on the microbiome, especially the gut microbiome, is booming and for good reason. These gut microbes, especially bacteria, have been linked to diet, disease, medications, stress, body mass index, even brain function and anxiety—basically everything!
Right now, science is exploring completely germ-free mice—weird to imagine growing up in a world free of any and all germs, but extremely useful in studying how bacteria affect their hosts—swabbing c-section delivered babies with their mother’s microbes in hopes of preventing allergies and asthma, and even fecal microbiota transplants—a bit of a yuck factor but very interesting results in life-threatening bacterial infections. This type of research is fascinating, so it’s creeping across the Internet and enticing people to take science into their own hands. The truth is, though, it’s complicated.
This brings us to one of the microbiome struggles in 2018… keeping our feet on the ground. With the booming research, it’s hard not to float off into a world where the gut microbiome is the culprit and cure for EVERYTHING. While it’s exciting and very promising, we should take some of this research with a grain of salt until all of the possible outcomes are more defined.
For instance, those fecal microbiota transplants we mentioned… they may help cure the potentially fatal bacterial infection, Clostridium difficile, but will they make a once lean person obese or an otherwise healthy person struggle to manage blood sugar or depression? We don’t know yet.
What do we know about the microbiome?
What we can say with certainty, in very simple terms, is that what we put into our body and expose it to throughout our lifetime greatly impacts our overall health. Duh. This is the basis for exercise and nutrition—we already know that, BUT what if there’s more to the story?
Caloric intake, carbs, fats, and proteins are definitely major factors, but we’re finding that how we metabolize these calories; what nutrients and antioxidants circulate through our blood, to our brains, and down to our toes; and possibly even what we crave depends upon the tiny little micro-lives working away in our lower digestive tract.
Find the large intestine below. This is where our gut microbiome thrives.
In case you’re not familiar with the whole anatomy of the gut, the upper GI tract starts with the mouth and goes just past the stomach to the duodenum, which leads to the gut microbiome hub, the lower GI tract. It contains the small and large intestine. In healthy people, there are hundreds of different species of bacteria residing in the large intestine and a lesser amount in the small intestine.
Imagine the inside of your gut like a tube-shaped, soft, slippery rainforest with hills, grooves and tons of bacteria battling each other for survival, food, and space to reproduce. Some are more aggressive, some passive, some hiding under the surface of the mucus lining of the gut, some out in the open, and others are just passing through.
It might sound a little chaotic, but the overall consensus is that a consistently diverse range of both beneficial and potentially harmful species of bacteria in the gut microbiome contributes to overall health.
How can potentially harmful bacteria be good?
In low doses, they give our immune system necessary training to identify and rid the body of “red flags.” Our immune system uses this training to create a memory bank so we’re better equipped next time we face similar invaders.
How can any BACTERIA be beneficial?
The types of bacteria that don’t display a significant threat teach our immune system when to lay low. They are known as commensal bacteria. We give them a nice suitable shelter in our gut where food is brought directly to them. Meanwhile, they arm us with an array of tools to digest and extract nutrients from foods that would otherwise pass through as waste. Some of these nutrients are broken down to provide strength and nourishment to our gut lining. Others are things like antioxidants and certain medications that without bacterial processing would remain inactive. These commensal bacteria basically give us a better bang for our buck on those pricey medications and organic fruits and veggies.
We know this is a lot of information to… digest. (See what we did there?) Let’s take break for now and pick it up again in our next blog post where we’ll discuss what happens when the balance of good vs bad bacteria gets off track.
About Vivante Health
Vivante Health is an innovative digital healthcare company reinventing the way chronic conditions are managed. Our mission is to fill the unmet needs of people living with chronic conditions that are invisible, neglected, or stigmatized, starting with digestive disease. Our health management ecosystem, GIThrive, empowers people—through brilliant technology and advanced science—to spend less time worrying about their digestive condition and more time living life.