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The Microbiome: Our Bacteria and Us


Our GI tract is home to trillions of live bacteria. All those bacteria, including their DNA, are called our microbiome. We host various strains and even families of strains; for instance, the family called Lactobacilli includes acidophilus, rhamnosus, casei, etc.—different strains. They all live together, mostly in the large intestine, though some do live in the small intestine as well. They are believed to outnumber our own human cells by about 3 to 1!

We get these bacteria, initially, from our travels down the birth canal. Then they continue to be ingested via our food supply, especially if it includes fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kim chi, and yogurt. It is a known fact that they need to come in on a regular basis since they don’t just colonize and live happily ever after. We need to provide our GI tract with them on a regular basis. What do these friendly bacteria do for us? Why do we need them? Only in the last several decades have we begun to answer those questions.

The Purpose of the Microbiome

Aid Digestion

One of the primary jobs the microbiome assists with is our digestive processes. They produce enzymes to digest various carbohydrates that our human system cannot process. They also make a variety of vitamins for us, including vitamin K, biotin, B1, and B2.

Fight Invaders

Another important gift of our bacteria is the protection of the intestinal surface, helping to prevent “leaky gut.” They are also protective in that they inhibit colonization by pathogenic microbes of all sorts, including the unwanted yeast called Candida albicans.

Provide Immune Support

Our bacteria also support our immune system. From mice studies, it is known that early on, the bacteria actually mature the infant immune system. They continue to influence our immunity throughout our lifetime. They play a central role in balancing our immune system – not too little of it and not too much (autoimmunity). Particular bacteria control inflammatory processes.

Promoting a Healthy Microbiome

If we have a predominance of good bacteria, our immune system will hum along nicely under their influence. If we have too many “bad” bacteria, our immune system can be stimulated toward inflammation. Numerous studies connect an imbalanced microbiome impacts joint and skin health, blood sugar and weight management as well as overall aches and discomfort. Diet plays a role in maintaining the health of the microbiome. A probiotic supplement (billions of good bacteria) can  be used to support microbial balance.

Brain-Gut Connection

The newest and perhaps most exciting data coming out of the microbiome research is about how it can communicate with the brain and affect mood and anxiousness. If it is not all in your head, it may be all in your gut! The bacteria send messages to the brain, and the brain sends messages back.

Particular strains of bacteria are being researched to learn whether they influence brain function – and to figure out how they do it. This area of research is so new, it doesn’t yet have a formal name. Some call it psychobiotics. The research is fascinating. For example, Bravo et al.[1] treated healthy mice with a probiotic formulation containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus or a placebo and then subjected all animals to a battery of mood-related behavioral tests. Results showed that use of Lactobacillus rhamnosus reduced behaviors related to anxiousness and low mood.

A recent study by Tillisch et al. (2013) provided the first direct demonstration that ingestion of probiotic bacteria can modulate brain activity in humans. Healthy women drank a fermented milk product with probiotic bacteria, a non-fermented milk product, or nothing. FMRI revealed robust alterations in the brain activity of those participants who consumed the probiotic bacteria relative to the comparison groups.[2] So make sauerkraut, eat yogurt, or take a probiotic supplement. It will do your gut good!

[1] Bravo J A, Forsythe P. Chew MV, et al. (2011). Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 108, 16050–16055.
[2] Tillisch K, Labus J, Kilpatrick L, et al. (2013). Consumption of fermented milk product with probiotic modulates brain activity. Gastroenterology, 144, 1394–1401.

Ramona Richard, MS, NC

Ramona Richard, MS, NC

Ramona Richard graduated with honors from the University of California with a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology and graduated summa cum laude with a Master’s Degree in Health and Nutrition Education. She also holds a Standard Designated Teaching Credential from the State of California, is a California state-certified Nutrition Consultant and a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.

Ramona has participated in nutrition education in both public and private venues, including high school and college presentations, radio and public speaking for the past 20 years. She is the owner of Radiance, a nutrition consulting company, the Director of Education for Sanesco International, and a medical technical writer.

Disclaimer: The information provided is only intended to be general educational information to the public. It does not constitute medical advice. If you have specific questions about any medical matter or if you are suffering from any medical condition, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.

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