The thought of being full of bacteria might make you uncomfortable. Especially if you grew up in a hygiene-focused society where all bacteria were considered bad. But trillions of microbes from thousands of different species reside in and on each human body, serving helpful functions and usually living in harmony with their human host.
Scientists are just beginning to scratch the surface of knowledge about the diverse microbial populations that live in our digestive tracts, skin, and even our lungs. By far the largest population of microbes is in the gut, where thousands of species serve many purposes, like:
- Aiding digestion by metabolizing nutrients and synthesizing vitamins.
- Protecting the body by preventing overgrowth of potentially dangerous bacteria.
- Building the immune system so it can properly respond to organisms that cause infection and disease.
- Regulating appetite and stress-related behavior by affecting the production of hormones in the gut.
Why do microbiomes differ from person to person?
Unlike our DNA, which we carry as the same unique sequence throughout life, microbiomes are a dynamic and can change over time. People who live together tend to have similar microbiomes, and there are many other factors that influence a person’s microbiome throughout life.
- Antibiotic use: Prescribed antibiotics and those in the food chain impact our normal microbes as well as those that cause infection.
- Diet: Diets that are high in processed foods, low in fiber, or don’t contain a wide range of foods appear to have a negative effect on the biodiversity of our microbiomes.
- Location: Exposure to different environmental bacteria along with variations in diet and genetics mean that people in different geographic regions have significant differences in their microbiota.
Medical Conditions Associated with Microbiomes
Gut microbes have a significant impact on digestive health. But they also seem to have relationships with a variety of neurological and autoimmune conditions. In most cases it’s too early to tell if changes in gut bacteria are a cause of illness or just a symptom, but the affected conditions are far reaching.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease – Rates of IBD are increasing throughout the world, and appear to be linked to urbanization and westernized diets. Patients with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis often have decreased diversity or abnormal ratios of bacterial species. Low concentrations of certain bacteria predict a high risk for IBD.
Diabetes – Gut microbiota appear to influence both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. This may be a clue to why type 1 diabetes rates have been rising for decades, especially among young children.
Anxiety & Depression – The gut-brain axis is becoming of particular interest to researchers, as gut microbes appear to have an influence on brain centers like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Various animal studies appear to show a link between a reduced number of gut microbes and behaviors that indicate anxiety and depression.
Multiple Sclerosis – Certain types of bacteria that are rare in healthy people are found more commonly in those with MS. Experiments have found that introducing these bacteria to healthy blood samples increase the number of cells that activate immune attack.
Autism – The large number of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who also have gastrointestinal issues has led researchers to investigate links between the two. One recent study found that microbiota transfer therapy was successful in improving both GI symptoms and ASD-related behaviors, with improvements lasting for up to 8 weeks after treatment.
Parkinson’s – People with Parkinson’s disease often have reduced numbers of bacteria from the Prevotellaceae family, while greater numbers of Enterobacteriaceae are linked to more difficulty with balance and walking. It’s not yet clear if these microbiome changes are a cause or effect of Parkinson’s, but it’s giving researchers more insight into the progressive disease.
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