We are, it turns outs, as much moving microbiomes as we are human. A microbiome is any collection of microorganisms which live in a particular environmental location — in this case, our bodies. The average human contains ten times more microbial cells than actual human cells.
For some people, the thought that we’re essentially walking microbe-homes makes them run to the shower to scrub their skin raw. Take heart, however — most of the microbial life in the human body is harmless, and many are so beneficial to our health that some scientists think of them as a newly-discovered organ system, as integral to human life as our circulatory and nervous systems.
Intestinal microflora, or probiotics, play a vital role in human health. The intestinal microbiome affects how effectively we burn energy and store fat. These microscopic hitchhikers affect our immune system from birth — breastfed babies have more diverse and robust intestinal microbiomes than formula-fed children because mother’s milk passes important microorganisms to the developing child.
It’s even been suggested that the health of intestinal microbiomes affects behavior, as the microbiome seems to send messages to the human brain which affect mood and eating habits.
Microbiomes Under Stress
If you live in an industrialized nation, chances are your microbiome is less diverse than someone living in a third-world country. Antibiotic use accounts for this difference.
Let’s be upfront and clear here: used correctly, antibiotics save lives. However, antibiotics are the medical equivalent of napalm. A dose of antibiotics doesn’t just target and kill malignant bacteria; it also decimates your microbiome population, leaving you vulnerable to digestive problems and secondary infections.
To illustrate how important your microbiome is, consider Clostridium difficile, a nasty little intestinal bug which can take advantage of a depleted microbiome. C. difficile targets older individuals and people who just underwent antibiotic treatment. The bacteria can cause colon inflammation and bowel-perforating bouts of diarrhea.
Severe cases of C. difficile are sometimes treated with fecal transplants, and yes, that’s as gross as it sounds. A donated sample of gut bacteria is transplanted into the patient’s intestine, where it can reproduce and fight off the invading bacteria.
Caring for Your Microbiome
So, how do you care for and encourage the growth of the intestinal microbiome? A healthy diet containing prebiotics is essential. Prebiotics are the nutrients your microflora needs to thrive. A diet rich in fruit, nuts, vegetables, grains, and fiber provides prebiotics. For an added boost, you can add probiotic supplements such as Probiotin to your diet.
Avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics. Note this doesn’t mean avoid all antibiotics, but you should discuss the need for antibiotics with your doctor. When antibiotics are necessary, consider taking prebiotic supplements throughout treatment and especially afterward when you will want to stimulate your microbiome to recover as quickly as possible.
Wash your hands frequently to avoid introducing unwanted bacteria or viruses to your microbiome. Just use regular soap and water, however, which provides the same protection against infection as antibacterial soap. Rather than protect you, an antibacterial soap or sanitizer could kill beneficial microorganisms.
If you were breastfed as a child, thank your mom. She gave your microbiome a definite boost. If possible, breastfeed your own children so they receive the full benefit of your own protective microbiome.