There is a common misconception among many of the patients that I see. They think that the genes in their cells, their DNA, determines whether they will get diseases like diabetes or heart disease. I once believed this as well. Enter the microbiome.
The microbiome is the genetic material of all the microbes – bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses – that live on and inside the human body. There is about 200 times more genetic information contained in the microbiome than in our own genome. Microbes outnumber our human cells ten to one. The majority live in our gut, particularly in the large intestine.
The bacteria in the microbiome help digest our food, regulate our immune system, protect against pathogens, and produce vitamins including the B vitamins B12, thiamine and riboflavin, and Vitamin K, which is needed for blood coagulation.
Numerous studies have come out recently showing how much the microbiome influences our mood, thoughts, feelings, and nervous system in general. There is literally a “gut” brain, a large part of which is the microbiota in our intestines.
The microbiome is essential for human development, immunity and nutrition. The bacteria living in and on us are not invaders but beneficial colonizers. Autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia are associated with dysfunction in the microbiome. Disease-causing microbes accumulate over time, changing gene activity and metabolic processes and resulting in an abnormal immune response against substances and tissues normally present in the body.
Autoimmune diseases appear to be passed in families not by DNA inheritance but by inheriting the family’s microbiome.
Some examples of how the microbiome affect individuals:
- The gut microbiome is different between obese and lean twins. Obese twins have a lower diversity of bacteria, and higher levels of enzymes, meaning the obese twins are more efficient at digesting food and harvesting calories. Obesity has also been associated with a poor combination of microbes in the gut.
- Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disease associated with a less diverse gut microbiome. In animal studies, bacteria play a role in developing diabetes.
- Dust from homes with dogs may reduce the immune response to allergens and other asthma triggers by changing the composition of the gut microbiome. Infants who live in homes with dogs have been found to be less likely to develop childhood allergies.
- Fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT or fecal transplantation) is a clinical procedure that restores healthy bacteria in the colon by introducing stool by colonoscopy or enema from a healthy human donor. Potentially fatal Clostridium difficile infections (CDI) have been cured using FMT to restore healthy gut microbiota. FMT is also used to treat colitis, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome.
It’s an exciting time because we are witness to Western Science and projects like the Human Gut Project that are making a good case for why systems of healing like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine work. It all starts in the gut!
If reading this blog post makes you interested in your own microbiome, and you want to get a gut check or just some professional help cultivating a good microbiotic flora, contact me.