Our bodies are home to trillions of microorganisms that play a critical role in digestion, the synthesis of vitamins, and our immune function. But, how much are we able to harness our microbiome to take control of our health?
In a previous post, we discussed how nature, nurture, and plain old chance can influence your microbiome. This week, we dive deeper into the science that suggests how these factors can impact your microbiome, and in turn, your overall wellness.
For starters, our station in the circle of life is revealing.
Upon birth, we are immediately exposed to outside elements. For instance, our delivery method (vaginal versus cesarean section) and whether we feed on breast milk or formula help to shape our emerging microbial fingerprint.
Studies suggest that the exposure — or lack thereof — to microorganisms in our early years could contribute to predispositions toward allergies and asthma, among other conditions. Certain babies are more at risk for these conditions when they possess low levels of common bacteria such as Bifidobacterium, Akkermansia, and Faecalibacterium and a relatively increased presence of fungi (Candida and Rhodotorula).
At just three years of age, our microbiome stabilizes and roughly resembles the profile of an adult.
Illness and the use of antibiotics can temporarily alter your microbiome, often resulting in decreased diversity of microbial species. Antibiotics are modern miracles in fighting bacterial infections — but since they indiscriminately kill good bacteria along with bad bacteria, they can impact the fragile microbiome. Overuse of antibiotics, especially after repeated administration in a relatively short amount of time, has been associated with intestinal dysbiosis — an umbrella classification that can describe a range of symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, among others.
The aftermath from these experiences can linger for years, but in time, your microbiome usually adjusts back to its baseline state.
As we reach old age, our microbiome decreases in diversity, making our immune system more vulnerable. Low microbial diversity has also been correlated with frailty. Studies show that the elderly experience lower levels of Bifidobacterium, which has anti-inflammatory properties that can help curb disease.
But age is only one variable that governs our microbial landscape.
Location, lifestyle, and genetics also impact your microbiome and wellbeing.
Where one lives — whether it be rural or metropolitan, industrialized or developing — shapes our microbial ecosystem. One study evaluated the gut microbiomes of rural Malawians, indigenous people of Venezuela, and U.S. city dwellers, and found that more pronounced differences existed among the group of U.S. urban residents as compared to the Malawians and natives of Venezuela.
Culture also impacts our microbiome and predisposition toward certain illnesses. For example, a Western diet — typically consisting of low fiber, high sugar, animal-based protein, and processed food — tends to give rise to a predominance of Bacteroides over Prevotella. This diet can be a risk factor for some chronic diseases, including irritable bowel disease (IBD).
Conversely, other communities with high plant fiber diets exhibit vastly different microbiome profiles than their Western counterparts. One such group, Tanzanian hunter-gatherers known as the Hazda, possess an abundance of Prevotella and nearly no Bifidobacterium, among other differences. Notably, autoimmune diseases are virtually nonexistent among these tribe members.
While no one particular healthy microbial profile exists, microbial diversity is known to promote wellness by protecting against foreign pathogens, increasing our natural line of defense. Research indicates that demographic variables including body mass index (BMI), race, and sex are significantly associated with microbial diversity.
Scientists are continuing to explore how social and environmental factors influence the microbiome. What’s more, researchers across multiple disciplines are investigating how these elements contribute to the unique health profiles — and needs — of various populations, whether they’re grouped by sex, age, race, geography, etc. uBiome has engaged in various research collaborations to help bridge this knowledge gap.
As our understanding deepens, we’ll all be more empowered to optimize our health, and our microbes.