The microbiome affects our lives in so many ways it could be considered another essential organ in our body.
- The bacteria (and other microorganisms in the gut) protect us from disease by pushing out dangerous bacteria and preventing it from settling in or multiplying. In recent years, we have learned more about the relationship between the microbiome and different health issues, including obesity, allergies, autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, cancer, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver, diabetes, aging, and neurodegenerative disorders. However, there is still a lot to learn in these areas.
- The microbiome is crucial for the development and maintenance of our immune system. It teaches the immune system how to know the difference between healthy and harmful. A healthy immune system must recognize bacteria, viruses, and fungi (amongst other microorganisms) in order to identify what is harmless and what can potentially cause disease. If our immune system is not exposed to these, it cannot learn what is normal and what is not. Without the microbiome helping the immune system, they body may attack itself. This is when we see autoimmune diseases such as celiac, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases, and more.
- The microbiome breaks down the dietary fibers in our food. From these, they create metabolites called short-chain fatty acids that feed the colon cells. This is how the microbiome helps us digest food and release nutrients we normally cannot break down. The 3 main types of short-chain fatty acids - acetate, butyrate, and propionate not only nourish the intestinal cells. It is thought without these nutrients, the colon is at risk of developing colon cancer.
- Research is even showing us that the microbiome plays a role in producing hormones, like leptin and ghrelin, that affect our feelings of hunger and satiety.
- The microbiome also breaks down other substances that do not help the body. For example, when we eat red meat, the bacteria in our gut turn the substances that our body has produced from the meat into a substance called TMAO. The TMAO gets absorbed back into the bloodstream, but only if the microbiome has the bacteria that can produce TMAO. Recent studies have found a link between TMAO in the blood and a high risk of heart disease. This is because the TMAO can build up in the arteries and block them. The type, amount, and risk are all based on a person's microbiome.
- The microbiome produces vitamins for us like Vitamin K and Vitamin B. The human body cannot produce these vitamins. The only way to get them is to either eat foods containing these vitamins, or produce them from our microbiome.
- The microbiome has an effect on the development of the nervous system and even on our mood and behavior. For example, most of the serotonin produced in our body is produced by the microbiome.
As you can see, the microbiome plays a major role in our health in many different ways. Scientists are continuing to learn more every day. We hope in the near future, we will know more about how to harness the power of our microbiome to further improve our health.