As of 2021, it is no exaggeration to say that with our ever-deepening understanding of the gut microbiota, we are on the very edge of a revolution in human wellbeing. The claims linked to improving the diversity of our microbiome may seem wild, from reversing disease, preventing many of the major killers in society, to allowing us to live longer, healthier lives. But what is the microbiota, why is it so important, and what can we do to boost it?
What is gut microbiota?
It is often said that our own human cells are outnumbered by the bacteria on and within us by a factor of ten. More recent analysis suggests it is more like 1:1. Regardless of the true number, and let’s face it, who has time to count, bacteria play a vital role in our health, including (to name but a few):
- Helping to break down the food we eat
- Neutralising toxins
- Defending against infection
- Production of compounds essential for health – including vitamin K, and B group vitamins including biotin, cobalamin, folates, nicotinic acid, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, riboflavin, and thiamine.
The gut microbiota refers to the vast community of micro-organisms, of which there are believed to be around 100 trillion, in the human gastrointestinal tract. It consists of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. For the sake of reference, the micro-biome is not the same as the micro-biota; the former represents the collective genome of the micro-organisms. The role of these tiny entities within us can literally be described as a “virtual organ of the body”, such is its importance. And did you know, humans have around 23,000 genes, whereas the micro-organisms living in us have over three million genes?
According to research published in the BMJ by Professor Tim Spector, “Lower bacterial diversity has been reproducibly observed in people with inflammatory bowel disease, psoriatic arthritis, atopic eczema, coeliac disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and arterial stiffness, than in healthy controls”.
It is important to understand that many factors determine our microbiota health, including our genes, medication, diet, lifestyle, and stress levels.
How can we check our microbiota health?
One of the main ways to know for sure how diverse and, therefore, healthy your gut microbiota is, is to send a stool sample to a laboratory. The clever people and machines in the lab will scan your sample for all known microbes and send you a report on the findings. Such tests are becoming ever cheaper and commonplace and can (if you understand the results) help you improve your overall health.
The research by Professor Spector also confirms:
- Dietary fibre intake influences gut microbiota composition and is related to better health
- Microbiome composition defines glucose response to foods and can be used to personalise diet
- Probiotics help to improve human health
- The microbes in our gut influence human energy metabolism
- Diet and medication have a strong influence on gut microbiota composition
In future articles, we will talk more about how we can all improve the healthy diversity of our gut microbiota and thus, improve our overall health. Some of the best-known ways are to a) increase the range and type of foods we eat, b) consume more fermented foods, and c) consume more fibre. We are only at the start of the gut microbiome/microbiota revolution, and we will keep you up to date with the key research findings as they emerge in the coming months and years.