It seems like every week there's a new article out on the microbiome. As an integrative gastroenterologist and founder of the Digestive Center for Women, I'm asked about the microbiome all the time. So to clear up some confusion, I’m sharing the 10 questions I hear most often, and what I tell my patients.
1. So, what exactly is the microbiome?
The word “microbiome” refers to all the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in or on your body. That's over 100 trillion microbes in total.
Your unique microbial footprint, which develops over your lifetime, can reveal a lot about you: your parents’ health, how and where you were born, what you’ve eaten, where you’ve lived, your occupation, personal hygiene, past infections, exposure to chemicals and toxins, medications and hormone levels. The mix is so distinctive that your microbiome is actually a more accurate identifier of you than your DNA.
2. Why is it so important?
Think of microbes as worker bees that perform most of the important functions in your body. They help to digest your food, train your immune system to distinguish between friend and foe, turn your genes on and off, synthesize important vitamins that your body can’t make on its own, aid in detoxification, neutralize cancer-causing compounds, plus many other things.
3. What are some of the problems associated with an unhealthy microbiome?
Damage to the microbiome — what we call dysbiosis — is the root cause of a broad range of diseases. That includes gastrointestinal disorders like Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, but also autoimmune diseases like thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis, and type-1 diabetes.
Studies have demonstrated an altered microbiome in many children with autism. Research has also shown that anxiety and obesity can both be induced in germ-free mice by transferring microbes from mice who are anxious or obese.
4. What can I do to support my microbiome health?