By Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMS

Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford, suggests that the next step toward good health may be when we realize we are “an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.”

In 2003, the Human Genome Project, the international scientific research project with the goal of identifying and mapping all of the genes of the human genome, was completed. Since its completion scientists have discovered more than 1,800 disease genes, genetic testing is available for patients who might be at risk for certain diseases, causes of rare diseases are being identified, and a field of study called pharmacogenomics is able to look at an individual’s genetics and determine which drug is most appropriate for their treatment. That’s pretty incredible! More recently, the Human Microbiome Project has been underway as an extension of the Human Genome Project, and is revealing some amazing discoveries and ways that we can treat, prevent, and diagnose disease.

Did you know that without the microscopic, foreign organisms we call bacteria we would not survive? In fact, the number of bacteria cells that live on and in the human body out number our own cells ten to one! We have more than 100 trillion bacteria living on or in us. So what do these helpful little bacteria do? Here is a list of just a few things we know our microbiome is doing for us… It helps digest our food, regulate our immune system, protect against other bacteria that cause disease, and produce vitamins including B vitamins B12, thiamine and riboflavin, and Vitamin K, which is needed for blood coagulation. The National Institutes of Health Common Fund Human Microbiome Project (HMP) “was established with the mission of generating research resources enabling comprehensive characterization of the human microbiota and analysis of their role in human health and disease.” This study of the bacteria living within the human body has already revealed a number of connections between our health and disease states such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and more. The Cleveland Clinic states that, “The chemicals [bacteria] emit interfere with the way food is digested, medicine is deployed, and even how a disease progresses. Biotech companies once focused on the genomic market are pivoting to the potential of the microbiome to develop new diagnostics, new therapies, and ‘probiotic’ products to prevent dangerous microbe imbalances.”

As they continue to research the ways in which the microbiome impacts our health, the future looks bright. For example, the next steps of the HMP include looking at how bacteria impact pregnancy and preterm birth. Babies get their first microbes from their mothers, so understanding what microbes are present will provide information to give babies a healthier start in life. One particular research group will be looking at how the mother’s microbiome affects the health of her child and in turn make progress towards decreasing preterm births and deaths. Another area of research is set to study the onset of inflammatory bowel disease. With 1.5 million people suffering from some form of IBD in America, this is one of the most researched disease states for the microbiome and immune system connection. Lastly, a new study will be looking at the way bacteria influence the onset of type 2 diabetes. Research has already shown that people with type 2 diabetes have variations in their microbiome compared to those without the disease. This isn’t happening with type 2 diabetes alone. Scientists are finding out that there are differences in the microbiome of individuals with other diseases and those who do not have those diseases as well.

So now you may be wondering what you can do to promote the health of your friendly bacteria. The answer isn’t simple. We’ve got a lot of things that potentially are working against us. We get our first dose of bacteria from our parents and the rest from our environment as we age, but there are factors that influence how our microbiome flourishes (or not), and which helpful strains remain in our system. Antibiotics, for example, will kill off not just the harmful bad bacteria that cause infection, but also the good bacteria we need. Antibiotics are a life-saving discovery in medicine; however, constant use of them also has a deleterious effect. From a young age, we encourage our children to stay clean, wash their hands, and limit the amount of germs that are spread, often for very good reasons. But some scientists are suggesting that we are now creating environments that are too sterile, and we are not allowing the good bacteria to do their jobs. Others point their fingers at our Western diet of processed foods and additives for the disruption of the microbiome. Another theory blames the bacteria in our digestive system which, when compromised, allow harmful bacteria, toxins, and other non-harmful, but uninvited, guests to trip our immune system response. Without fully knowing what disrupts our microbiome and all that it does, experts are still pointing to a few things you can do to help keep your bacteria thriving. Probiotics are a choice of many when trying to increase healthy bacteria. Yet probiotics designed to promote microbiome health can be very unregulated, so be careful when selecting one. Instead, you may first want to try incorporating probiotic friendly foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha, keifer, or any other fermented foods (see my previous blog titled Gut Health, Fermentation and One Strange Looking Drink for more information on fermented foods). Making sure to intake plenty of fiber rich foods (get in those veggies and fruits!), and avoiding processed foods as much as possible will not only help “feed” your microbiome but also keep you healthy in other ways. Foodie and food researcher, Michael Pollen, states, “With our diet of swiftly absorbed sugars and fats, we’re eating for one and depriving the trillion of the food they like best: complex carbohydrates and fermentable plant fibers.” Until we know more about our microbiome begin with those simple measures. It was only in 2001 that the invisible universe that lives within us was officially coined the “human mircobiome,” so there is much to be learned. It is a complicated subject, yet scientists are just starting to scratch the surface of what might be revealed to improve our health in the years to come.