The microbiome: embracing your inner ecosystem
The microbiome is the term du jour lately across the health world. But very few of us really understand what the microbiome means or what it encompasses. So let’s get right to it.
Our bodies –– every nook and cranny of them and not just our gut –– are home to trillions of microorganisms that come in thousands of different species. These include bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. When we’re healthy, these microorganisms form a mutualistic, co-beneficial relationship with us. And this relationship is so important that the microbiome is often labeled as a supporting organ because it plays so many roles in how our bodies function on a day to day basis.
While the idea of walking around with trillions of little critters inside and all over you might sound gross, it’s actually quite fascinating. Even more fascinating is that each of us has our own unique network of microbia determined by our DNA. We’re first exposed to microorganisms during birth as we pass through the birth canal and through breast milk –– and those microorganisms will depend on the species found within each mother. As we age and our bodies mature, changes in diet and the environment will also influence the balance of beneficial bacteria in our microbiome
A mutualistic relationship.
In science class, we’re taught that the relationship between the healthy bacteria inside our bodies is a symbiotic relationship. But symbiosis really doesn’t do the microbiome justice. That term denotes that microorganisms are hitchhikers inside our body, just along for the ride. Instead, let’s call this relationship mutualistic because the definition of a mutualistic relationship is that both organisms are getting a benefit off one another. We’re providing these bacteria with a safe environment and nutrition with the food we eat. And they’re providing us with a lot of health benefits.
Rather than the clean, even sterile, vessels we picture our bodies as, they’re actually a walking ecosystem and petri dish. This is incredibly important to remember because so much of science and society wants us to be clean and sterile –– often to the detriment of our health when it comes to the overprescription of antibiotics, antibacterial soaps, sanitizers, etc. The key
Because as science is showing, there’s far more connection between us and the microbiome than we ever supposed before.
The benefits of a healthy microbiome.
As we mentioned earlier, our bodies are entire ecosystems unto themselves, and the healthy bacteria that lives inside them play a big role when it comes to our health.
To understand this natural ecosystem, it helps to look at nature itself. In Central and South America as well as parts of Asia, leaf cutter ants are prevalent. You may have seen lines of these ants dutifully carrying leaves back to the hive in little cut up sections.
But look closely under the hood and you’ll see much more than ants simply carrying their dinner home. The forest is providing food for these ants who are actually farming the leaves and eating a fungus that’s feeding on the leaves. But then it gets even more interesting. After they have essentially farmed the crop and eaten the fungus, they’ll kick the leaves back out of their hives. Then those leaves become a way to fertilize the forest and continue the nutrient cycle. The forest provides food for the ants. The ants provide carbon and nutrient turnover for the forest. That’s a mutualistic relationship. And that’s what happens inside of our body on a massive scale every single day.
The microbiome works in much the same way. These trillions of organisms are sitting at the bottom of our digestive system. They let us take the first pass at absorbing all the nutrients we can through the food we eat. Then they take everything we can’t absorb and use it for food. Because a lot of this tends to be fibers (also some fats and proteins), they help metabolize all those leftovers and the benefits really add up.
To really achieve the benefits of better health in a number of areas, we need to think of our bodies like gardens where the healthy bacteria serves as a soil. The healthier the soil, the more fruit and vegetables we’ll produce.
And that starts with adding lots of healthy organic matter. For example, a fungi called was initially thought to be pests. But what scientists found was that there’s an intimate relationship between this fungus and the roots of various plants, whereby the fungus is actually acting as an extension of the roots, and so it’s increasing the surface area, so a plant can take up more water and more nutrients from the soil.
The health benefits associated with the microbiome are far reaching. They’re also largely out of mind since we usually only correlate the microbiome with our gut health. Clearly, the health of our guts, the lining of our guts, and our digestive process is directly and intimately related to the microbiome. But there’s also been a number of other health benefits as well.
A healthy microbiome has a positive impact on our cardiovascular health. Healthy bacteria help us metabolize lipids. They can make essential vitamins like K and B Vitamins in small numbers. They also help us metabolize certain nutrients like fiber. And because 70-80% of our immune cells actually live in our digestive tract, there’s a direct connection between our microbiome and immune systems. Everything –– from our oral to our brain health –– is directly and positively impacted by a healthy microbiome.
Healthy diet, healthy life.
So if our bodies are the gardens and bacteria are the soil, how do we make sure that soil is the healthiest, highest-quality solid possible? The answer starts inside our kitchen.
A healthy diet leads to better overall health. And the reason is that the nutrients we put in directly impact our daily output via the microbiome.
The longer food sits out and is exposed to the air and environment, the more its nutritional value degrades. That’s partially what makes preservatives so bad for our health. They fill us (and subsequently our microbiomes) with low-quality nutrients. Eating whole foods that are locally sourced doesn’t just give the healthy bacteria in our bodies the top-notch nutrients they need, by going local we’re providing them with the bacteria they’re already used to, as bacteria fluctuates from region to region. Don’t believe us? Try visiting a foreign country. Let’s just say there’s a small “learning curve” as your body adjusts to the local flora in your food. It’s often called “traveler’s diarrhea,” but the condition is actually your body adapting to completely new species of bacteria.
By eating whole, locally sourced food and giving your microbiome the nutrients it needs, you’re filling your body with healthy soil –– giving it the ability to produce the fruits of good health: a positive impact on your brain, immune system, heart, and so much more.
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