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Five Things to Know About Your Microbiome

Terry Passano, RDN, LDN, CLT – University Dietitian

Living on and in us is an entire world of microbes called the microbiota. These microbes are crucial to the way our body functions. The microbiota in our intestines is perhaps the most important. It consists of a bacteria population that influences our mood, digestion, immune system, weight, how we age and fight disease. A well-functioning microbiome is imperative to our health.

Your microbiome is unique to you.
Your microbiome is influenced by such things as what you eat, the environment you live in, stress, your birth and early childhood. While we cannot change the past, our daily habits greatly influence our microbiome and the many aspects of our health that it affects. Diversity and balance are key to an optimal microbiome.

Your microbiome helps you digest and absorb nutrients
Gut bacteria produce enzymes that help us digest our food; without them, we could not digest many of the foods we eat. They synthesize specific vitamins, including vitamin K and some B vitamins. They metabolize phytonutrients, making them available for our body to use for our benefit. The microbiome improves the bioavailability of nutrients allowing us to operate at our best.

Your microbiome is vital to your immune system
There is a lot of interaction between your immune system and the bacteria in your gut. The microbiome plays a critical role in the training and development of major components of our immune system. They make up our immune systems army of foot soldiers who identify dangerous invaders, such as viruses and pathogens and protects us from them. The gut microbiome is also essential to a healthy intestinal wall. They work diligently to keep the intestinal wall integrity resilient and so prevent the passing of any unwanted substances. A healthy gut wall is like a fenced yard that keeps your dog in your yard and the neighbors out while allowing that squirrel to pass by unharmed. Our gut wall is a barrier that, when healthy, keeps things where they belong and supports our health.

The Gut-Brain Connection
We’ve all experienced that how we feel affects our gut – just think what happens before an exam or a job interview – but now it is being seen as a two-way street with our microbiome playing important roles.

The vagus nerve runs from the brain to the gut. It is part of the enteric nervous system, sometimes called the second brain. Its role involves communication between the body, gut and the brain. Gut microbiota are also involved, creating the brain-gut-microbiota axis where communication involves neuroimmune and neuroendocrine pathways. Through this bidirectional pathway, signals from the brain can influence gut function, and signals from the gut can influence brain function, such as mood. For more detail related to the gut-brain-biota axis, check out this detailed study.

The Gut-Weight Connection
When our gut microbiome gets out of balance, it can affect our weight and appetite. Each bacteria in the microbiome has its specific roles and personality. An increase in one type, firmicutes, and a decrease in another, bacteroidetes, can lead to a propensity to obesity. The firmicutes are better at storing calories and fat. We need both the firmicutes and the bactertoidetes, they both have vital roles beyond influencing weight, but we need them in the right balance. This is just one example. There are many more players in the microbe-weight connection with much more to discover. Balance and diversity remain our best friends when it comes to our gut.

The gut microbial community (microbiota) has co-evolved with us over millennia and benefits our minds and bodies. That is why it’s vital to maintain a healthy gut. Our daily habits have a significant influence on the state of our microbiome. What we choose to eat, how we exercise and manage stress, and the environment that we live in all affect our gut microbiome. Keep reading to find out what steps to take to build a better microbiome.