By Guru Banavar PhD, CTO Viome
Unless you’ve been living on some remote island, without access to the Internet, sipping piña coladas – there is no way you’ve missed all the hype about gut health.
It seems every day somebody’s coming out with a new colon cleanse, a gut health reboot, or a fancy new probiotic sure to solve your tummy troubles. Unlike other health fads, the focus on gut health is here to stay! This is because your gut is home to trillions of microorganisms that do everything from extracting energy from your food and strengthening your immune system, to creating your “happy” chemicals.
You have your gut microbiota to thank for so many aspects of your health (or lack of health), which is why it continues to be one of the hottest topics today.
As Dr. Martin J. Blaser director of the NYU Human Microbiome Program put it, “…the composition of the microbiome and its activities are involved in most, if not all, of the biological processes that constitute human health and disease.”
So, let’s get to know your gut microbiome a little better. Here are 14 surprising things you didn’t know about your gut microbiome.
1. Your gut contains more than bacteria – Although your gut microbiome is mostly bacteria, there are also all sorts of other organisms in there. Archaea are ancient organisms that have no cell nucleus and often produce methane. They also have the distinct ability to live in extreme environments, including your acidic gut. You’ll also find plenty of yeast and other fungi hanging out in there, and possibly parasites too. Most people also have a large number of viruses in their gut, especially plant viruses which are relatively transient. And perhaps the most fascinating of all are bacteriophages, which are teeny tiny viruses that infect and replicate within larger microorganisms. Since these phages specifically infect specific bacteria, the hope is that one day they may be used as targeted ‘antibiotics.’
2. Your human genes are completely outnumbered – The number of microbial genes (i.e., DNA) present in your gut microbiome is possibly a hundred times more than the number of human genes in your own cells. The data we’ve collected at Viome from a large population shows that the number of genes actually expressed (i.e., RNA) in your gut is around 4 times the number of genes expressed in your blood. When scientists originally discovered that the human genome (DNA) was 99.9% the same across most people, they were a little perplexed as to what accounts for the differences among humans. We have now learnt this is probably due to the expression (i.e., human RNA) of those genes, which in turn is influenced significantly by the expression (i.e., microbial RNA) of your dynamic microbiome, making each of us wonderfully unique.
3. You’re much like your mother – Even though humans are 99.9% similar in their DNA, they are very different when it comes to our gut microbiome. While your gut microbiome will look very different compared to the person walking by you on the street, it will likely look similar to your mother’s gut, since your microbiome was “seeded” by your mother’s microbiome when you passed through the birth canal. What’s more, it has been shown that nature has formulated mother’s breast milk specifically to nurture the microbiome of the baby as much as the human cells of the baby!
4. Your gut isn’t the same one you were born with – In fact, you weren’t born with much of a gut microbiome at all. Over the first seven years of your life, you developed your microbiome which was impacted by how you were born, where you lived, the food you ate, and much more. These experiences built the foundation of your microbiome and influenced how your gut microbiota looks today. While your gut microbiota changes throughout your life, it does keep a sort of “microbial fingerprint.”
5. The microbiome has the biodiversity of a rainforest – When we imagine a rich ecosystem with a lot of different species of plants and animals, we usually think of the Amazon rainforest. But each of our gut microbiomes has a biodiversity comparable to that of a rich rainforest… when maintained well. Many forces of modern life are making us lose the biodiversity of our gut microbiome; so it’s important to be mindful of what is going on in your gut!
6. It’s shrinking – As a whole, the Western world is losing diversity in their gut microbiome. Things like antibiotic use, overuse of antibacterial “hygiene”, and spending all of our time indoors have contributed to this loss in biodiversity. This is very concerning because this loss of biodiversity is also associated with a corresponding rise in the prevalence of chronic diseases, especially in the developed world. We’re only just beginning to understand how important these microorganisms are — it could be that we’re losing certain species we didn’t know were critical.
7. The “bad guys” aren’t all bad – We were too quick to label certain bacteria like E. coli “bad guys.” Only to find out that we actually need them in some levels and in some locations within our gut. You see, E. coli actually helps stimulate regeneration of the gut lining, which can prevent toxic compounds from reaching our bloodstream and can keep you healthy.
8. It’s more like an organ – Scientists are hesitant to call the gut microbiome an organ because it consists of microbial species that are not of human origin. But when you’re imagining the gut microbiome, it helps to think of it like an organ because it plays critical roles throughout your body. It’s actually a key player in your immune system, your endocrine system, and even your nervous system – it’s like a mega-organ!
9. Your gut microbiome is like your second brain – The gut microbiome is called your second brain because it affects your mood, happiness, motivation, and even can contribute to suboptimal neurological performance later in life. Your microbes actually produce about 90% of your serotonin or your “happiness neurotransmitter.” Along what’s called the vagus nerve, the bacteria in your gut are in constant communication with your brain and influencing your behavior. While this might sound like microscopic aliens are taking over your mind, the good news is you have a lot of influence over them through what you eat.
10. Antibiotics create a warzone – Antibiotics are like a nuclear bomb for your microbiota and can quickly change its make-up, potentially leading to “dysbiosis”. This can have both short and long-term effects on your health since the microbiome is critical in many physiological processes including regulation of metabolism and immunity. Viome can actually see from your microbiome if you’ve taken antibiotics recently, because antibiotics can cause widespread changes to your microbial ecosystem.
11. Your gut is surprisingly resilient – Even though antibiotics and such aren’t great for your gut microbiome if you must use them, you’ll be happy to hear your microbes can be surprisingly resilient. If you take good care of your gut by eating the right foods, which you can find through your Viome recommendations, you can boost the beneficial bacteria and work to restore balance. Your gut microbiome is pretty resilient and has the ability to potentially bounce back from something as catastrophic as antibiotics – with a little help.
12. Your microbiome harvests energy from food – How healthy your microbes are affects how well your body extracts energy and nutrients. A healthy gut is associated with a healthy metabolism. So when it comes to losing weight, not only should you exercise regularly, but you should eat for these trillions of bacteria. To find your ideal diet, you can take a Viome test, which tells you exactly what to eat to improve your gut microbiome.
13. We can predict if you’re overweight or lean – Looking at the composition and function of your gut microbiome, researchers can tell with high accuracy whether you’re overweight or lean. This has interesting implications because we know that the microbiome is essential to metabolism – through harvesting and storing energy. Though the connection hasn’t yet been made about whether or not certain microbes can actually make you fat, there is an interesting correlation between metabolic health and certain bacteria.
14. The gut is the epicenter of revolutionary science – The underlying conclusion of gut microbiome research is that… it’s all about balance, and to achieve it, we have to balance not only microbes, but also the activities that they’re engaged in. Functional metatranscriptomics goes beyond identifying who’s in there and is working to find out what’s actually going on inside your gut. Metatranscriptomic sequencing technology, which is what Viome uses, is at the forefront of this gut revolution. When you join Viome, you’re joining the largest community experiment in the history of humankind. Together we can unravel the most important aspect of human health, which interestingly enough, isn’t human at all. When you join Viome, you are joining the mission to make chronic illness optional.
There you have it – your gut microbiome is a fascinating and complex world. And we are constantly discovering new and amazing things!