What is the microbiome?

By: Dr. Naika Apeakorang

You may have heard of the term microbiome before. You may have even heard about how important it is for your health. But do you know what it is and why it’s so important? Let’s dive in!

What is the microbiome?

The microbiome is a diverse, complex and essential community of trillions of microorganisms in your body, that are mostly symbiotic (a mutually beneficial relationship between two groups). Your microbiome profile is determined by your genetics, birth process (babies get more immediate microbe exposure when they pass through the birth canal), environment, diet, and more. So, each person’s microbiome profile is unique.The microbiome is actually composed of not just bacteria, but of fungi, parasites and viruses as well, which all work together to regulate and support a variety of health functions in your body. Your microbiome supports everything from your immune health to your digestive health to your vaginal health, and even your nervous system health (via the gut-brain axis). The microbiome primarily resides in your gut, but it also makes it home in a couple of other places, including your skin and genitalia.

Why is the microbiome important?

For starters; there are more bacterial cells in your body than human cells, so that’s pretty major! While newer research suggests that babies may come into contact with microbes while inside the womb, it is known that the relationship between the microbiome and a human gets established at birth, with the most activity occurring in the first three years of life, so this is a life-long relationship we’re talking about! The microbiome is important because it stimulates and supports your immune system, defends your body against “bad bacteria”, creates key vitamins, and breaks down foods (including dietary fiber, which humans can’t break down).  When there’s an imbalance or disruption in the microbiome (aka dysbiosis), the body becomes more susceptible to disease. What disrupts the microbiome balance (aka homeostasis)? Infections, certain foods, stress, antibiotics, etc.

What is the relationship between the microbiome and the vagina?

A substantial portion of your microbiome exists in your genital tract. When the vaginal microbiome is compromised, other microorganisms get the opportunity to colonize and take over the vaginal environment, which can lead to infections such as bacterial vaginosis (aka BV), urinary tract infections (UTI’s), yeast infections, and more. The vaginal microbiome maintains a balanced environment by keeping the vagina at a healthy pH and by maintaining its population numbers so that other harmful microorganisms don’t get the chance to take over. It’s important to note that your vagina actually does an incredible job of self-regulating and self-cleaning, which means that you do not and should not have to douche.

What can you do to support your microbiome?

Eat a diverse range of foods:

A more diverse diet means a more diverse and healthier microbiome, which means more support for all of the amazing health benefits that microbiome provides. Aim to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, healthy grains and your preferred protein source (ideally lean meats, fish, or plant-based protein).

Incorporate prebiotic and probiotic foods into your diet: 

You can support your gut microbiome by eating both prebiotic and probiotic foods. Prebiotic foods feed the microorganisms in your microbiome, while probiotic foods supply your body with even more health supportive microorganisms (aka “good bacteria”). Some examples of probiotic foods include miso, tempeh, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and cultured yogurt. Some examples of prebiotic foods include asparagus, artichokes, garlic, onions, legumes, apples, bananas and oats, which are all rich in fiber. Some foods to cut back on that compromise your microbiome include processed foods, high sugar foods, artificial sweeteners, and red meat.

Supplement with probiotics:

Probiotic supplements contain live active bacteria that support digestive health by increasing the number of microorganisms in your microbiome, by improving the function of gut bacteria, by supporting your metabolism, and by restoring your microbiome to a more balanced state. While current research shows that healthy folks might not need to supplement with probiotics, it is well documented that folks with certain medical conditions (such as digestive disorders) can significantly benefit from probiotics. It’s also important to be intentional with probiotics after antibiotic use, since antibiotics can compromise the state of your microbiome.

Take care of your mind-body health:

Both stress and suboptimal sleep can impact both the composition and function of your microbiome. So practice sleep hygiene and try some pre-slumber mindfulness practices like meditation or journaling to welcome in a more restful sleep. Exercise can also support your mind-boy health. Studies show that physically active people actually have a more diverse, and therefore healthier microbiome. Lastly, there’s some pretty interesting research showing that gardening - yes, gardening- exposes you to beneficial microorganisms in the soil. So, if it’s spring or summer where you are, this is your sign to take up gardening this year, or at least to get your hands in some soil while you set up your house plants.

Practical microbiome-loving rituals in a nutshell:

  • Eat at least five servings of fruit and veggies per day to diversify and feed your microbiome.
  • Experiment with probiotic-rich foods. For example; have cultured yogurt and fruit for dessert instead of ice cream, add a side of kimchi or sauerkraut to your savory meal, and replace red meat with tempeh from time to time.
  • If you need to be on a round of antibiotics, follow up your regimen with probiotic supplementation.
  • Go for a walk around your workspace during your lunch break and an even longer one at the end of your day.
  • Incorporate a nighttime routine that will support you in getting at least 7 hours of restful sleep.
  • Spend some time with soil to increase your exposure to healthy microorganisms in your environment.
  • Don’t douche.

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