What are the functions of the microbiome?
The microbiome is a complex ecosystem of bacterial species living both on and in the human body that work cooperatively with our own cells.
The trillions of microbes are hard at work in the body at all times performing some of the following functions:
- Synthesize vitamins – the guests in our gut are responsible for synthesizing B vitamins and vitamin K. Scientists estimate that the microbiome contributes more than a quarter of the recommended dietary intake for vitamins B3, B6, B9 and B12. B9 and B12, otherwise known as folate and cobalamin, are especially important in DNA replication and the creation of new cells.
- Metabolism – the regular human biome would have difficulty managing undigestible carbohydrates, but certain species of microbes are able to break them down into forms the body can absorb. The products of this breakdown also help feed the microbes themselves allowing them to remain healthy and continue to perform their much needed functions. The bacteria are also responsible for converting dietary proteins and even our own sloughed off intestinal cells into precious amino acids, fatty acids, and shorter chains that the body can then utilize.
- Modify bile – these salts are critical to the proper processing of fats and allows them to be absorbed into the body. The microbiome reduces the potential toxicity of bile acids allowing them to be recycled and reused.
- Protection – the microbes in our system have established a routine with our body where they get fed a little bit, perform their functions, and allow their host to absorb more nutrients. Due to the fact they munch on any leftovers, they leave little for those pathogenic microbes that might be looking to set up shop in the body. If the bad bacteria can’t find room to settle down or enough energy, then our microbiome helps up stave off a potential infection.
The fascinating thing is that, like our fingerprints, the microbiome is unique to you even in the case of identical twins. Those in the field of criminal forensics are seeing how they could make use of this unique marker to help track down suspects and potentially augment existing evidence.
Is it really that important for our health?
Imagine if you were on a regime of antibiotics that wiped out your gut microbiota and the subsequent consequences. Researchers perform such animal studies where the microbiome of rats are obliterated, classifying them as ‘germ-free’. The studies are then performed on these animals in a group with a healthy microbiome and those without one, the germ-free rodents. As you might imagine, the germ-free rodents show a host of issues.
In those without a vitamin K supplement, a vitamin which plays a large role in the blood clotting pathway of the body, the rats begin to experience massive bleeds since they lack the ability to form a dam in the damaged blood vessel.
In a more direct application, individuals may become prone to recurrent C.difficile infections, a complication of antibiotic therapy. This leaves you with abdominal cramping, a potential fever, and diarrhea that leaves you dehydrated and your body depleted of precious electrolytes that could result in death. Doctors and hospital staff will locate a ‘stool donor’, an individual with a healthy gut microbiome before they transplant a processed sample of their stool into the body of the recipient. The study looking at this process was so effective that the researchers stopped the trial early with 90% being cured after two infusions.
Where did they come from?
It was long thought that infants growing in the womb came into the world germ-free, only to accumulate microbes after birth. However, researchers have now uncovered that the fetus is exposed to bacteria long before birth.
During vaginal birth, the infants are often exposed to an array of bodily fluids from mum that transfers many microbes to the infant which then take up residence and soon begin to provide many of the functions discussed above. As humans are exposed to other species in their day-to-day lives, some may be temporary while others stick around.
Would the foods I eat have any impact on my microbiome?
It’s impossible to say yes quick enough in response to that question.
The consumption of both pre-biotics and pro-biotics increases the number of beneficial species in the microbiome.
The Mediterranean diet consisting of low amounts of red meat replaced by lean, white meat and fish, high amounts of fiber, and high amounts of unsaturated fatty acids has shown an increase in the total gut bacteria. This food pattern specifically targeted beneficial species such as Bifidobacteria, Lactobacilli, Prevotella, and others.
Food products such as Molkosan are rich in L+ lactic acid, a prebiotic. When prebiotics are administered to nourish the residents of the gut, they have been shown to promote the activity of white blood cells and intestinal cells.
Keeping them happy means the microbiota continues to perform all of its functions and ensure the appropriate uptake of nutrients.
For those who want a fruity finish, there is Molkosan Berry which has the added taste of pomegranate and aronia berries which contain polyphenols which are beneficial to the gut. Ellagitannins, a compound found in pomegranate, has been shown to stimulate the growth of gut bacteria.