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The Human Microbiome

One of the most important, exciting and fascinating aspects in the understanding of human health is the human microbiome (IMO).

Do you remember when the world was waiting on pins and needles for the completion of the Human Genome Project? The research project that began in 1990 endeavored to sequence the human genome to determine how many genes we humans have and the significance of our genetic make-up where health and disease were concerned. What I remember most when the results were released in 2003 was that humans are no more genetically complex than the common fruit fly with roughly 20,000 protein-coding genes. Mind blowing.

While great advancements in human health and science have been made because of this research project, they seem small (to me) compared to that of the Human Microbiome Project that followed in 2007.

The Human Microbiome Project was established to identify the collection of microorganisms that reside in and on the human body that is referred to as the microbiome. Aside from labeling our roommates, researchers also wanted to understand the role they play, both individually as well as collectively, in human health and wellness. It was initially slated to be a five-year, worldwide effort but the research continues and has been the catalyst for an explosion of studies outside of the original project. My guess is that it will continue for as long as humans exist. In fact, over the past five years, there were more than 50k studies published on the human microbiome! What I love about the current research is that it has become more focused.

Some amazing information has come out of these studies and many of them show that imbalances in our internal ecosystem are directly related to clinical and chronic illness.

Of particular interest to me as a Nutritionist that works with people suffering from chronic digestive issues is the ongoing research on Inflammatory Bowel Disease as well as the intimate connection between the trillions of bacterial organisms that make up the microbiome and the function of the immune system.

Studies like this one published in Cell (2020) show that the immune system is reliant upon proper signaling by the microbiome before it will initiate an immune attack on undesirable organisms.

In October of last year, this study was published in Science Translational Medicine. It is a great example of the current research going into understanding how dietary habits may be contributing to the onset of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

The list could go on and on but what I want you to take from this is that we have learned an enormous amount about how proper function of the human body is reliant upon the balance of some 40 trillion microorganisms.

Research has determined that the healthiest people have the most diverse microbiomes. So, how do you achieve a diverse microbiome? Here are three things that greatly impact the diversity and balance of the microbiome:

1. Eat a diversified diet packed full of as many fruits and veggies as you possibly can each week. Want a challenge that could be more difficult that training for a marathon?? Try seeing if you can eat 30 different fruits and veggies in a week. That seems to be the magic number.

2. Check your sleep cycles and stress levels. Both of these are naturally connected; if you don’t sleep well, you get stressed and if you are stressed, you don’t sleep well. A vicious cycle. The microbiome is very much affected by lifestyle factors such as these. Start a new practice of checking in on both of those items and come up with a plan to address either or both if necessary. Your gut will thank you!

3. The human gut microbiome can be easily disturbed upon exposure to a range of toxic environmental agents. Try to limit the usage of antibiotics, pharmaceuticals (if possible) and chemical exposure such as pesticides, food additives and flame retardants, just to name a few. Check out the Environmental Working Group to find out more about where harmful toxins might be lurking.

I will leave you with this:

Growing up I recall thinking that bacteria was a bad word, something harmful and scary. And they can be but what we have learned over the course of the last 100 years and more significantly, over the last decade proves that not only do we need bacteria to function properly, but we are also (genetically at least) more microbe than human!

Now, don’t forget to love your bugs.

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