How is your microbiome today? Contented? Unhappy? How could you possibly tell?
Your microbiome is the ecosystem containing bacteria, fungi and even viruses living inside you. It will provide clues in the form of symptoms to tell you when it’s in good health or out of sorts, but you may not immediately associate these with your microbiome.
Like all ecosystems, your microbiome functions best when it’s balanced. In this article we’ll look at the importance of a diverse microbiome for your health and how to find out whether your microbiome is in good shape.
You have a symbiotic relationship with your microbiome. Your bacteria need you to provide them with a home and food. You depend on them to produce certain chemicals you can’t make yourself, teach your immune system to recognise danger, regulate inflammation, break down indigestible parts of food, and produce certain vitamins and minerals for you. Finally, they help to recycle unwanted hormones while directing how they work.
Although you might associate your microbiome solely with your gut, you have microbiomes all over your body. Your skin, mouth, nose, reproductive organs and even your eyes have their own populations of bacteria, all influencing each other.
You’re probably completely unaware of all this life and activity living within you and on you until something goes wrong and you experience symptoms of dysbiosis. Simply put, dysbiosis means an imbalance in the microbiome contributing to ill health, and symptoms can be as diverse as digestive issues, immune problems, skin issues, weight gain or low mood.
By now you know a healthy microbiome benefits your health in many ways. But what constitutes a balanced microbiome?
Scientists estimate there are over one thousand different species of bacteria, fungi and viruses living in your gut, all coexisting harmoniously. One of the fascinating things about your microbiome is it’s completely personal to you. Although certain species of bacteria tend to be present in everyone, the dominant species in your microbiome, the number of different types of bacteria and their various quantities are all influenced by your diet, lifestyle and health history.
Your personal bacterial population all emit different chemical messengers, because certain species are better at producing some chemicals than others. Friendly bacteria produce anti-inflammatory chemicals. Other bacteria are not so beneficial, releasing chemicals encouraging inflammation, and ideally these are kept in check by your friendly bacteria. Think of a garden where plant-eating pests are naturally kept in check by other insects such as ladybirds. When this balance becomes upset in the natural world, plants are damaged by aphids, while imbalances in your microbiome mean unfriendly bacteria increase inflammation in your body, disrupt digestion and upset your immune system. Dysbiosis of your microbiome can also lead to oxidative stress, resulting in DNA damage and ageing, and is generally considered to cause an increased risk of disease.
In your microbiome ecosystem, diversity definitely matters, with people having a wide variety of bacterial species more likely to enjoy good health. In studies, researchers found people suffering from chronic, non-infectious diseases tended to have a less diverse microbiome. As in a natural ecosystem, diversity equals resilience – if one species dies out, it’s less likely to have an impact than if there are only a few species in a particular community.
In one recent study, people seriously affected by COVID-19 had fewer beneficial species of bacteria in their microbiome than expected, with the specific bacteria missing being associated with regulating the immune system. These bacterial levels were mirrored by increased inflammatory chemicals in their blood. Those sufferers with compromised gut bacteria were more likely to have persistent symptoms consistent with long Covid.
It’s not known yet whether the changes in the microbiome were a cause or an effect of the virus, but it does highlight the importance of a balanced and diverse microbiome in staying healthy and warding off disease.
Although we can’t peer into your gut to discover whether you have a diverse microbiome, bacteria in your stool accurately reflect the situation inside you. Analysing your stool can discover the micro-organisms in your microbiome and the different chemicals they have produced. Comparing the levels to those expected in a healthy person will detect specific imbalances and reveal whether your microbiome is healthy and diverse or if it could do with a helping hand.
Because science is starting to discover which species of bacteria if elevated or missing are connected with specific health conditions, revealing your personal microbiome makeup can be key to discovering the underlying causes of your health conditions. Armed with this knowledge, dietary and lifestyle strategies can restore these bacteria. Your microbiome is adversely affected by poor diet and lifestyle habits, so using simple strategies like increasing fibre intake, getting better quality sleep and stress reduction are powerful tools to improve your microbiome health.
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