It is said that the lines on your face tell the stories of where you've been, but the microbes in your gut may paint a more visceral picture. Since the day you were born, an entire ecosystem of microorganisms has been colonising your gut - it's purpose to not only optimise its productivity, but also regulate your mood, your weight and even your immune system. While trillions of bacteria living inside you may sound like the stuff of nightmares, this "microbiome" is essential to survival. Dubbed by scientists as the 'forgotten organ', the secrets of the microbiome are captivating the medical community and data scientists around the world.
So, here's what you need to know about your microbiome:
1. Your gut contains 2kg of microorganisms!
Your gut contains trillions of microbes - mostly bacteria, but also viruses, fungi and other critters you may never have heard of. The make-up of your gut flora is as unique to you as your fingerprint with each of us harbouring hundreds of species of different microbes. One third of your microbiome is common to most people, whilst the rest is specific to you based on your age, diet, lifestyle and environment.
2. Helping you get the most out of your food
Let's face it bacteria have a bad reputation, but not all bacteria are pathogenic. A host of good bacteria and other microorganisms carry out important nutritional work that your body can't do itself - like extracting nutrients from food, processing fibre, and making essential vitamins. In fact there's growing evidence that conditions like obesity and diabetes may have roots in our gut flora.
3. Keeping out toxins
Your gut is lined with a layer of mucous which protects you from invasion by microbes and toxins. When good bacteria break down fibre, they produce special chemicals which help to maintain the integrity of the gut lining. A breach in this gut barrier function may contribute to numerous conditions such as Parkinsons, autism and even obesity.
4. Keeping unwelcome microbes in check
A thriving population of good bacteria help keep pathogenic microbes and fungi at bay by competing for nutrients and places to colonise. Unfortunately a dose of antibiotics indiscriminately kills off the good as well as bad bacteria, disrupting the balance of the microbiome, and leaving the door open for bacterial and yeast overgrowth.
5. Your gut controls your mood
Your gut has its own nervous system and actually contains more neurotransmitters than the brain! The gut produces about half of your body's calming hormone dopamine, and around 95% of the mood hormone serotonin. Your microbiome has a profound effect on the way your mind works, and low levels of certain types of gut bacteria have been linked to depression and anxiety.
6. Ironically your gut bacteria provide immunity
The gut wall contains 70% of the cells that make up the immune system! Suddenly it's not such a leap to see that autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disease and allergies could be related to your gut health. By communicating with immune cells, the gut microbiome can control how your body responds to inflammation and infection.
7. Your Mum's bacteria are with you for life
When babies are born, their guts get their first dose of bacteria as they pass through the birth canal, and subsequently from the mother's breast milk. Your gut microbiome is established by the time you're 3 years old - and whilst you're born 100% human, you will be 90% microbial by the time you die!
8. Diversity is a key strategy in preventing disease
A balanced microbiome is important for good health, and studies have shown that healthy people have more microbial diversity in their guts. Sadly the modern diet, as well as widespread use of antibiotics and emulsifiers used in food manufacturing have reduced the diversity of our microbiomes. Dysbiosis (an unhealthy imbalance in the gut microbiome) affects not only bowel function, but can also lead to inflammatory and autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue and even mental health problems.
9.You can't fix your gut flora with a probiotic
The microbiome is a feat of ecological engineering, and use of probiotics has been likened to trying to restore a rainforest with a packet of grass seed... The microbiome can be disrupted by a number of lifestyle and environmental factors including medications and antibiotics, chronic constipation, stress and diet. Somewhat anticlimactically, the best way to maintain a healthy microbiome is through positive lifestyle changes like fixing your diet (fibre, fibre, fibre), getting more exercise and reducing your stress levels.
Perhaps more interesting is the growing popularity of the "faecal transplant" - this fascinating procedure involves transferring faeces from one person's intestines into another's. Though unsavoury, faecal transplants may be successful in curing stubborn infections of particularly nasty bacteria, and in treating inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's. Stool banks that screen and collect faecal donations are now popping around the globe.
10. Optimising your microbiome is a key strategy in preventing disease
As you read this, many of the bacteria in your gut are working overtime to keep your body in good shape. Every day our labs analyse the microbiomes of hundreds of individuals, looking for evidence of an imbalance or dysbiosis of the gut flora. These unique insights are used by nutritionists and integrative health professionals to inform the development of personalised diet and lifestyle plans to help you improve and diversify your microbiome.
healthily's Microbiome Check is a home stool test kit that provides unique insights into your gut flora. The Microbiome Check will reveal if you have overgrowths of unhelpful or pathogenic bacteria, or deficiencies in important beneficial bacteria. This comprehensive digestive screen will also look for evidence of any parasites or yeasts that may be irritating your gut. healthily's in-house medical and nutritional professionals will explain what your results mean, and provide recommendations to help you get your health back on track - it's all part of the service.
Unlock the secrets of your microbiome, and take a more progressive approach - transform your health and optimise your wellbeing from the inside out.
Meet Dr Michael Webberley (MBChB MD FRCP)
Dr Webberley is a gastroenterologist who spent 10 years as Lead Gastroenterologist and Clinical Director with the National Health Service in the UK. Mike is passionate about preventive health, combining insights from both traditional and integrative medicine to provide more a holistic patient experience.
Dr Webberley has developed a series of gut health checks designed to help you unpack your mystery gut, and provide you with key insights to help you restore and optimise your health. Refer to our gut health blog for more information.
Meet Jennifer May (Adv.Dip. NutMed, ATMS)
Nutritional medicine is the study of the relationship between food and a healthy body. It involves analysing how nutrients are processed, stored and discarded by your body, and explores how what you eat affects your overall well-being. Jennifer, consults on a variety of health issues including hormonal, digestive, cardiovascular, immune, and blood glucose related conditions. Her key interest is helping people recover from stress, food intolerance and chronic illness. Find out more about Jennifer's work in her blog.
Want to know more?
Reach out to the team for more information about our wide range of gut health checks.
- Introduction to the human gut microbiota. Elizabeth Thursby and Nathalie Juge. Biochem J. 2017 Jun 1; 474(11): 1823–1836.
- Autoimmunity and the Gut. Andrew W. Campbell. Autoimmune Dis. 2014; 2014: 152428.
- Dysbiosis in gastrointestinal disorders. Chang C. and Lin H. (2016) Best Pract. Res. Clin. Gastroenterol. 30, 3–15
- Dynamics and stabilization of the human gut microbiome during the first year of life. Backhed F., Roswall J., Peng Y., Feng Q., Jia H., Kovatcheva-Datchary P. et al. (2015) Cell Host Microbe 17, 85
- Modulation of intestinal barrier by intestinal microbiota: Pathological and therapeutic implications. Natividad J.M.M. and Verdu E.F. (2013) Pharmacol. Res. 69, 42–51 doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2012.10.007
- The role of short-chain fatty acids in the interplay between diet, gut microbiota, and host energy metabolism. J. Lipid Res. den Besten G., van Eunen K., Groen A.K., Venema K., Reijngoud D.-J., Bakker B.M. (2013) 54, 2325–2340
- Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. David L.A., Maurice C.F., Carmody R.N., Gootenberg D.B., Button J.E., Wolfe B.E. et al. (2013) Nature 505, 559–563
- A dietary fiber-deprived gut microbiota degrades the colonic mucus barrier and enhances pathogen susceptibility. Desai M.S., Seekatz A.M., Koropatkin N.M., Kamada N., Hickey C.A., Wolter M. et al. (2016) Cell. 167, 1339–1353.e21