It is fair to say that the exploration of the microbiome has turned out to be the most exciting prospect in medicine since the discovery of DNA. Most people have at least heard the term “gut microbiome,” which applies to the trillions of microbes, chiefly bacteria, that live in the human digestive tract. Awareness has risen to the point that taking probiotics—over-the-counter additives of microbes to supplement and balance the gut microbiome—has become a global $5 billion-dollar market.
We’ve reached the point, after a decade of intense investigation, where the ABCs of the microbiome are known. These facts provide the groundwork for what you can do, or cannot do, to improve your own gut microbiome (the word “gut” is necessary because we have multiple microbiomes in our mouth, groin, and armpits as well as over the surface of our skin).
Here are some basic facts and the positive implications of each:
-Every person’s microbiome is unique.
Positive implication: Individual diets can be tailored to promote the best bacterial activity in your diet.
•Hundreds and perhaps thousands of different species of bacteria inhabit the gut microbiome. As part of a teeming community that is involved in digesting your food, some bacteria are beneficial, some are not.
Positive implication: It is possible to potentially increase the beneficial bacteria and decrease the harmful ones.
-Through direct chemical signals sent to the immune system, the gut microbiome has a strong, perhaps the strongest, influence on your immune status.
Positive implication: All types of diseases, including cancer and the major chronic diseases of modern life (obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension), might be prevented and possibly cured through maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.
-Diet is seen as the most powerful way to change your gut microbiome, since each bacterial species feeds on specific foods.
Positive implication: Without any kind of medication, a healthy microbiome should be sustainable through proper diet alone.
You can see why the microbiome has provoked so much promise and excitement. As positive as these facts are, however, they are also very general. At present there are hundreds of studies on the gut microbiome that have reached no consensus, so the whole field remains in flux.
Here are the major issues that need to be resolved.