The gut microbiome, like the Amazon Rainforest, is teeming with life and each part has a purpose. Trillions of microbes comprise the gut microbiome and altogether can weigh between 2-5 lbs. While many do not realize it, wiping out or destroying our gut microbiome is disastrous to not just gut health but overall health and wellness. This conglomerate of microbes in our gut is intricately complex and so important that it essentially acts as another organ in the human body.
Viewed as a relatively new field of study the gut microbiome scientists and researchers have had experiences with the gut microbiota in some way dating all the way back to 1670s-1680s. While research picked up around the 1940s and 1950s when researchers could culture the gut microbes, more in-depth research has taken off over the past two decades leading to significant progress in clinical settings. The journey to fully understand the gut microbiome is not over as we learn more and more about its composition, functions, and the implications inherent in our collective learning.
1. What is the Gut Microbiome?
In the most simple terms, the gut microbiome is a conglomeration of trillions of microbes living in the human gut. These microbes are unique and include different DNA, mechanisms of function, purposes, and even include viruses and fungi. Upwards of 1,000 bacterial species and over 140,000 viral species have been identified as part of the gut microbiome. Bacterial species are the most studied out of all the microbes inhabiting the gut. As a whole the gut microbiome is key to the health and wellness of the host but can also harbor pathogenic or harmful microbes.
Richness and diversity are common terms used to describe and measure any given gut microbiome. Richness refers to the number of distinct microbes in the microbiome. Whereas diversity more broadly accounts for the balance of the distinct microbes as well as their characteristics/functions. Healthy and balanced gut microbiomes are typically both rich and diverse. Richness and diversity enable your gut microbiome to be more resilient and have a wider and more efficacious range of function.
Notably, 70-80% of your immune system resides in the gut. Reasonably your immune system is heavily influenced by your gut microbiome. A healthy microbiome translates to a healthy and robust immune system. (Learn more about how to increase immune support in one of our previous blogs).
Takeaway: The gut microbiome is composed of trillions of microbes that interact with the human body.
2. How Does the Gut Microbiome Work?
Microbes have functions while they are living. These functions require input and produce output. The input ranges from bodily metabolites, micronutrients via diet, metabolites produced by other microbes, and more. Continuing on, the output from these gut microbes includes metabolites that send signals to other parts of the body, short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), useful enzymes, and more. Ultimately, there exists a two-way relationship between the gut microbiome and the body.
For example, bacterial strains categorized as Firmicutes were identified as the major butyrate producing group. These strains most typically followed the Acetyl-CoA pathway to produce butyrate. Meaning the specific strains used a compound along the Acetyl-CoA pathway as input to produce butyrate as output. It should be noted that butyrate is a SCFA that has many useful purposes in your body including possessing anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer functions for your gut.
In conclusion, a diverse gut microbiome offers many functions that are beneficial and even essential for health and wellness.
Takeaway: Gut microbes get input from the body, diet, or other sources then produce metabolites, enzymes, and more.
Probiotics assist in the health and balance of your gut microbiome.
3. Why is the Gut Microbiome Important?
If it has not been said enough already, your gut microbiome affects overall health and wellness. Specifically it can promote or prevent disease based on its richness, diversity, composition, and health. An imbalanced gut, other times called dysbiosis, is implicated in symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, weakened immunity, and development of serious chronic conditions. We have covered how the gut microbiome connects with the gut, brain, and muscles in a previous blog post which you can read more about here.
Specifically in terms of immunity, gut microbes can fend off harmful microorganisms, teach the immune system to distinguish between harmful and beneficial microbes, and eliminate toxic compounds.
Furthermore, the gut microbiome has a big impact on nutrition as it can digest dietary fibers (fibers that the human body cannot digest on its own), create compounds that are used for energy and other processes (e.g. SCFAs and essential vitamins), facilitate the absorption of dietary minerals, and overall improve energy harvest and storage.
All in all, the gut microbiome truly has the impact and function of an essential organ in the human body. Its balance promotes continued health and wellness, while imbalance and improper care of it can lead to unwanted symptoms, disease, and discomfort.
Takeaway: The gut microbiome is essential to overall health and wellness.
It is time to start looking at the gut microbiome as a key piece to overall health and wellness. The complex and intricate nature of the gut microbiome, as it interacts with itself and the body lends itself to acting as an internal organ and an integral part of the body as a whole. Continuing research and clinical evidence builds upon the mountains of knowledge already discovered; pointing to one big idea, without a healthy gut microbiome we are left in a state of unwellness, susceptible to chronic disease and acute illness.