What’s in your microbiome?

A cuddly-looking ball of a crocheted microbe with big eyes.

Could most of the microorganisms found our digestive systems be as friendly as this guy? Photo and microbe by Stacey Trock of freshstitches.com.

What’s living in your gut? Are the microorganisms in there good for you? And how does your diet influence them? These are interesting questions for fans of living, fermented foods, and science is just beginning to answer them as it investigates the microbiome. The fact that we’re asking them at all is pretty cool.

The diversity of bacteria that live on the body is staggering. The Human Microbiome Project claims there are about 10,000 spices altogether, found everywhere from our mouths to our bellybuttons and that they outnumber human cells ten to one. In our digestive systems, it’s possible that we have “enterotypes” in the same way we have blood types. And it’s possible that different people have different populations depending on their diet, or where they grew up. Right now, anybody can find out what they’ve got inside by joining the American Gut campaign, which is wrapping up in a few days.

Why care? Maintaining and even cultivating our digestive diversity could be healthy, and learning how our microbiome works and reacts could open a whole new area of disease treatments, something that’s covered in depth in this excellent article in the New Yorker. As that article makes clear, we’re still really early in understanding the ins and outs of our bodies’ relationships to the many microorganisms they host.

One thing is becoming more clear, though: We need healthy microbiomes, which means we should carefully consider the use of antibiotics. It’s starting to look like taking them is akin to swallowing a grenade that can blow up a lot of beneficial bystanders at the same time that it hits the bad guys. If many of the microbes we harbor contribute to our health, then wiping them out by mistake with drugs could allow other harmful microbes to take root, produce autoimmune disorders, or trigger other problems. It’s possible that digestive bacteria protect against celiac disease, for example. They could help determine body weight. And, in some studies, fecal transplants have cured the diarrhea caused by Clostridium difficile infections, showing that changing the population in the gut can bring about health results.

I’m looking forward to the news that comes in the next few years, but I’m especially curious to learn how our diets, especially oes that include fermented foods and lots of live microorganisms, influence the microbiome and our health. Is there a change in our guts if we load up on kraut and yogurt every day? And do those little beasts stick around inside us and do good things? I can’t wait to find out.

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  1. narf7’s avatar

    As someone who is currently experimenting her brains out messing around with ferments and cultures this article is very interesting. “Back in the day” when we all had to ferment to put up enough produce to keep us going (sans ricketts) through the winter people just didn’t ask these questions…that kraut, the kefir, the fermented grain booze etc all played their part in keeping us both regular and alive. Now, we play God any chance we can get. We accept with blind faith the postulations of chemists and ignore the wealth of natural history regarding herbs and ferments as so much mumbo-jumbo at our own peril. Love the post and just put you into my RSS Feed Read, cheers for the food for thought ;)

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