What is the Microbiome?

I have really been enjoying listening to the Evolution of Medicine Summit that I posted about last week, and hope you have been too! One theme that seemed to be repeated throughout every talk that I listened to was this of the microbiome. This is a relatively new term used to describe the complex community of microorganisms that live in and on us. Until recently “germ” or “bacteria” were always something to kill, but we are only now starting to realize the symbiotic and critical relationship that we actually have with all these microorganisms. In fact our own cells are outnumbered 10:1 by microorganisms in our own bodies. We really are just a vessel for this micro-ecology.


Scientists are finding that changes and disruptions to this microbiome are related to many aspects of our health from diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune disease to anxiety. Much of our modern lifestyle is affecting this ecology including the way we are born, antibiotics we take to treat illness and feed our livestock and the way we are feeding ourselves. For example, studies have found that being born by Cesarean section, which 1/3 of Americans are, profoundly affects the types of bacteria that we are colonized with since we are not exposed to those in our mother’s birth canal. This difference in colonization is proving to have vast influences on our lifelong health. Some of the good news is that we can alter this microbiome also for the better just by changing what we eat. One recent study found that after only one day of a different diet the microbiome of the research subjects had changed. I love when I find great examples of food as medicine! I am sure we will be seeing much more on this research to come. Some predict that really understanding this microbiome in all its diversity and genetic makeup is the next frontier for human exploration.

To see more on the human microbiome watch this short animated movie from NPR. I think it does a great job of explaining the basic concepts. If you want even more I recommend the book Missing Microbes by Martin Blaser and also check out the human microbiome project.


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