Know Your Microbiome

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Know Your Microbiome

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The microbiome is an incredible ecosystem of microbes, made up of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that are floating through the body at any given moment. Weaving their way around the intestines, and moving effortlessly across the skin, they form a protective shield that keeps the immune system healthy and helps to defend against bad bacteria.

Your microbiome has matured by the time you’re 3 years old.

With age and introduction of solid food, the microbiome of a baby becomes increasingly diverse and transitions into a relatively stable and mature microbiome by around 3 years of age.

(Kundu, Blacher, Elinav, & Pettersson, 2017; Milani et al., 2017).

The micro world of the mouth

The mouth houses the second most diverse microbial community in the body, harbouring over 700 species of bacteria.

(Kilian et al., 2016).

You are what you eat.

Individual diet and lifestyle choices can alter the microbiome composition on a daily basis.

(Daliri, Tango, Lee, & Oh, 2018).

Your choices today can change your microbiome

The number of bacterial cells in the body is of a similar magnitude as the number of human cells

(Sender, Fuchs, & Milo, 2016).

The microbiome is an incredible ecosystem of microbes, made up of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that are floating through the body at any given moment. Weaving their way around the intestines, and moving effortlessly across the skin, they form a protective shield that keeps the immune system healthy and helps to defend against bad bacteria.

Your microbiome has matured by the time you’re 3 years old.

With age and introduction of solid food, the microbiome of a baby becomes increasingly diverse and transitions into a relatively stable and mature microbiome by around 3 years of age.

(Kundu, Blacher, Elinav, & Pettersson, 2017; Milani et al., 2017).

The micro world of the mouth

The mouth houses the second most diverse microbial community in the body, harbouring over 700 species of bacteria.

(Kilian et al., 2016).

You are what you eat.

Individual diet and lifestyle choices can alter the microbiome composition on a daily basis.

(Daliri, Tango, Lee, & Oh, 2018).

Your choices today can change your microbiome

The number of bacterial cells in the body is of a similar magnitude as the number of human cells

(Sender, Fuchs, & Milo, 2016).

GET TO KNOW YOUR MICROBIOME BETTER

Tap to reveal the answers

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    The microbiome is the name given to the extraordinary living ecosystem within our bodies, consisting of trillions of bacteria and other microbes, which are sometimes collectively referred to as the microbiota. These have co-evolved with us over millions of years, and play an important role in our health and digestion.

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    All complex forms of life, from plants to mammals, contain some form of microbiome, each uniquely adapted to the host.

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    Bacteria were once seen as the enemy, but in recent years we’ve become more aware of the many connections between our bacterial allies and the healthy functioning of the body. While the microbiome can be influenced by many lifestyle factors, such as diet and certain medications, it in turn influences many aspects of our health, such as immune and digestive function.

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    The microbiome helps us maintain good health in a wide variety of ways. It helps stimulate and regulate the immune system, synthesises vitamins, and breaks down indigestible food components, for a start.

More answers below

OTHER QUESTIONS

The human microbiome consists of bacteria residing in the gut and other body sites, but it also includes an abundant variety of other micro-organisms, from fungi and viruses to less familiar names, such as protists and archaea.

The composition of the microbiome can vary greatly from culture to culture, and indeed from person to person and body site to body site, but we know the most about the composition found in the healthy human gut. This community is dominated by bacteria of two phyla – Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. These make up around 80 to 90 per cent of our total microbiota.

Bacteria act in complex, mutually beneficial ways. Of the two main players, Bacteroidetes plays a role in breaking down complex molecules into simpler ones, while Firmicutes assists in the processing of energy.

The modern Western lifestyle has been shown to reduce diversity within the microbiome. A diversity of micro-organisms within the gut helps to maintain proper function of the immune and digestive systems.

While your gut contains the most abundant and diverse population of bacteria, you host a variety of microbial life across your entire body, particularly on the skin, in the mouth and in the urogenital tract.

For some time, we believed that development of the microbiome began at birth with the baby’s first exposure to the bacteria of the birth canal. However, recent studies show that some maternal microbes can begin colonising the baby’s gut while still in the womb, suggesting that the microbiome is already developing before birth.

During the early stages of breastfeeding, the baby’s microbiome remains in a relatively simple state, dominated by bifidobacteria. Breast milk is full of sugars called oligosaccharides, which nourish the bacteria passed on from the mother and encourage them to multiply and crowd out less desirable micro-organisms. The bacterial ecosystem soon begins to diversify, and within a few years, the infant’s microbiome has begun to stabilise and resemble that of an adult.

During natural childbirth, a baby is exposed to its mother’s bacterial ecosystem while passing through the birth canal. This provides a solid foundation for its own microbiome. The baby’s microbiome is further developed during breastfeeding by microorganisms in the mother’s milk. The next major change in the microbiome occurs with the introduction of solid foods, shifting the bacterial composition towards an adult state.

While the basic composition and character of the microbiome is established in early childhood, it continues to form and reform throughout your life, changing and adapting according to diet, health and age.

As we get older, our microbiome begins to lose its diversity. Different species begin to dominate and there is a general decline in beneficial micro-organisms. This becomes particularly pronounced beyond the age of 70.

Once the desired probiotic strains have been grown to high numbers, they are placed in a centrifuge to separate out the bacteria from the nutrients they were feeding on. These beneficial bacteria are then freeze-dried under strictly controlled conditions, avoiding exposure to water or oxygen.

Many external factors can influence microbiome diversity. Antibiotics operate by reducing the reproduction of harmful bacteria, but can deplete populations of useful bacteria in the process. Stress can also alter the makeup of the microbiome, lowering numbers of potentially beneficial Lactobacillus bacteria. Fibre provides fuel to the bacteria of the gut, so a diet low in fibre and high in processed foods can be detrimental to microbiome health.

– There are over 1000 different bacterial strains living on and in the average adult.
– 80% of your immune system can be found in your digestive tract, where most of your bacteria resides.
– Our bacterial fingerprint is even more unique than our DNA.
– Our microbiome, in total, can weigh up to two kilograms.
– Some animals actively alter their microbiome. Young iguanas, for instance, eat soil or faeces to tailor their microbiome to their current diet.

You might imagine that the acidic environment of the stomach is an inhospitable place, but acid holds little fear for probiotic bacteria. Lactobacillus strains, for instance, create lactic acid as part of their normal operation. Several studies have shown that orally administered probiotics can survive the transit through the stomach and colonise the gut.

Look for foods rich in fibre, which will nourish your bacterial friends and help them reproduce. Fermented probiotic foods such as yoghurt and kimchi can also be useful for a healthy microbiome, helping to maintain healthy levels of beneficial bacteria.

The term ‘microbiome’ is a relatively recent invention, but early glimpses of the idea date back to the 1860s, when Antonie van Leeuwenhoek used a specially designed microscope to observe the diversity of bacteria resident in and on his body.

This century, advances in DNA sequencing and computational biology technologies has resulted in the production of entire microbial genomes representing key members of our gut microbiome, which has transformed the way scientists observe both host and microbe interactions with each other. This new technology allows the ongoing research for detailed representations and understanding of the functional microbiome, allowing for interventions on the gut microbiome to continue to benefit human health.

As our understanding expands further, the microbiome may be fundamental to personalised medicine, helping clinicians tailor diet and medication for optimal results. In addition, a new frontier of research is focused on ‘postbiotic’ treatment, which use the beneficial by-products of bacteria for a targeted effect. All these advances will mean a healthier microbiome for you, and better overall health.

Prebiotic foods seek to improve the health of the microbiome by means of non-digestible dietary fibre.

Not all fibre is prebiotic. To be classified as a prebiotic, the fibre must pass through the gastrointestinal tract undigested, stimulating the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria.

Prebiotic foods act as fuel for your microbiome, feeding and encouraging useful bacteria and supporting gut health.

Probiotic foods are bacteria-rich, fermented foods, such as kimchi or yoghurt. They support your health by supplying the microbiome with beneficial bacteria which assist the existing community to maintain a healthy composition.

Whereas prebiotic food provides the fuel for beneficial gut bacteria, probiotic food contains the beneficial bacteria itself. The two are therefore a useful combination, working in tandem to support a healthy microbiome.

Probiotic supplements can contain a variety of natural, beneficial micro-organisms which provide a health benefit, such as supporting a healthy and diverse microbiome. By helping to maintain healthy levels of intestinal microflora, probiotics can assist the function of the immune system and support general health.

The most common strains administered in modern probiotics belong to the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera. Notable strains include those belonging to the species Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus paracasei, Bifidobacterium lactis and Bifidobacterium longum.

A balanced diet filled with fibre and fresh, unprocessed food is a great way to support a healthy microbiome, along with regular exercise. In addition to leading a healthy and balanced lifestyle, you can also take probiotics to help maintain healthy bacterial diversity in your gut.

Commercially used probiotic strains can have a variety of origins including human, animal and plant sources. Bacteria are initially isolated from their origin and then cultured (grown) using specific nutrients suitable for each strain. These beneficial bacteria thrive and multiply from the addition of these nutrients via a process called fermentation. Once bacteria reach desired concentrations they are then rapidly frozen (freeze-dried) under strict controlled conditions, making the bacteria dormant and ready for packaging.

Shelf-stable probiotics undergo an extra step during production – freeze-drying – which renders the bacteria dormant until they encounter moisture upon ingestion.

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