The human microbiome: Why you need to keep it healthy

March 28, 2017
Microbe350

I recently attended the 2017 Swedish Pediatric Metabolic Health and Nutrition Summit, and what I learned there fascinated me not only as a pediatric nurse, but as the mother of an 8-year-old. 

My husband and I have struggled with our weight all of our lives, and we were determined not to let that happen to our child. We thought that because he is a skinny kid we were on the right track nutritionally.  

What I didn’t know

I’ve had a growing interest in nutrition over the past year, and I also wanted to delve into how I could improve the quality of life for my patients. 

After attending the conference, I was shocked to learn how much I DIDN’T know about nutrition and how much I needed to improve what my family eats at home.

The conference covered a lot of material, so I’m going to write four blog posts. Here’s the first installment, about the human microbiome, the role it plays in our health and how nutrition can affect its balance.

A trillion organisms 

The human microbiome is made up of all of the microorganisms that live on the outside and inside of our bodies. These microbes include bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses. Bacteria in the microbiome help us digest food, protect us against bad bacteria that cause disease, and help keep our immune system healthy.

More facts about our microbiome:

  • It contains more than 100 trillion organisms.
  • We have 10 times as many microbe cells as human cells.
  • Our microbiome is 1 percent of our weight, and the microbiome in our gut contains more than 2 pounds of bacteria. 
  • Our fecal microbiome is 33 to 50 percent bacteria, and everyone’s is different.
  • Our microbiome makes the B vitamins cobalamin (B12), riboflavin (B2) and thiamine (B1), and vitamin K, which helps blood clot. Babies receive a vitamin K shot at birth because they aren’t born with a microbiome, and the vitamin is needed to stop any unusual bleeding.

Microbiome and disease

A microbiome that is out of balance can cause or be linked to various diseases and conditions, including:
  • Acne
  • Eczema
  • Obesity
  • Malnutrition
  • Depression
  • Dental cavities
  • Cancer
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Gastric ulcers caused by the bacteria H. pylori
  • Asthma and allergies caused by nitrites, which are food additives
  • Antibiotics that can lead to infections, such as C. difficile, which can cause colitis

A healthy gut

Taking antibiotics can be necessary to stamp out a serious bacterial infection, but they can also disrupt your gut microbiome. In fact, it can take 12 to 18 months to restore your gut flora after taking an antibiotic. 

One way to help promote a healthy gut is to feed it probiotics, which are healthy bacteria. 

Where to get probiotics

Probiotics are live microbial organisms that promote a healthy digestive and immune system. While it’s good to eat foods that contain probiotics, taking a supplement to boost them also makes sense. 

Foods that contain probiotics include yogurt and any fermented food, such as pickled vegetables, unpasteurized sauerkraut, fermented bean paste, tempeh, miso, kefir, buttermilk, kimchi and soy sauce.

Probiotic foods, such as yogurt, can contain from two to five species of good bacteria. But a supplement can contain many more. 

Choosing a supplement

As a rule, you should pick a supplement that has more than 20 billion bacteria and as many bacteria species as possible. Eight is a good number of species, but the more the better.

A common theme throughout the conference was “read your labels.” This applies to food, supplements and anything else you consume.

If you are taking an antibiotic, take probiotics supplements two to three hours after the antibiotic. And take them for at least two to four weeks after you finish the antibiotic. 

A healthy gut and prebiotics

Prebiotics can help you maintain a healthy digestive system. A prebiotic is a carbohydrate that can’t be digested – fiber, for example – but feeds the healthy bacteria in your intestines.  

Good sources of prebiotics are raw asparagus, bananas, raw garlic, onions and Jerusalem artichokes. You should eat one to two tablespoons of these foods daily to keep your microbiome in good shape.

IBD: Can diet help?

Doctors now are looking at diet as a way to treat some conditions caused by or linked to an unhealthy microbiome. Inflammatory bowel disease, which includes colitis and Crohn’s, is an example. This condition involves inflammation of the digestive tract and affects 1.6 million Americans, including up to 80,000 children.

Risk factors for IBD include:

  • Genetics
  • Antibiotic use while young
  • A Western diet, which has actually become a global diet

Traditionally IBD has been treated with anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant drugs and steroids. Now, however, there’s growing evidence that diet can also help in treating and managing IBD.

Symptoms could determine best foods

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation notes research in this area but says more work needs to be done to draw firm conclusions about diet and IBD. The foundation lists seven “talked about” diets and says they may ease IBD, depending on a person’s symptoms.

The best diet? The one that meets your nutritional needs and helps you better manage your condition. If you have IBD, talk to your health care provider about what dietary changes might be best for you. 

At Swedish, our pediatric gastroenterologists can help with children’s health. Call 206-215-6605 to schedule an appointment. For adults, contact the Swedish Digestive Health Network at 855-411-6944.