Microbiome: Part 1

May 12, 2020


Heather Maddox, MD

The father of medicine, Hippocrates, once said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Despite the hundreds of years that have passed since we are just now understanding the vital role that the gut microbiome has on our overall health.

What Exactly is the Microbiome?
The human microbiome is a delicate ecosystem consisting of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and even parasites that live within the digestive tract, especially the lower part of the intestine called the colon. They have evolved with us over thousands of years and play a key role in digestion and absorption of minerals, defense against invaders, support of the immune system, and even our mood!
In fact, the human microbiome is considered the most complex ecosystem in the world. Since we acquire most of the important microbes early in life, usually by the age of 3, it is important to nurture our microbiome right from the start.

Why is the Microbiome so Important?
This delicate gastrointestinal ecosystem has many key functions to keep us healthy.
Our gut microbes play an important role in digestion. They can release vitamins from the foods we eat and also help in detoxification (riding our system of chemicals we don’t want).

They are a vital part of our defense and produce a glue-like material called short-chain fatty acids that help protect the lining of the intestinal wall. This helps not only to keep invaders out but also helps to prevent changes in the lining that can lead to colon cancer.
These microbes actually help educate and train your immune system to recognize self vs non-self. If we lose certain species and overall numbers of these important organisms, it allows for other species to dominate. This can start to hurt the lining of the intestinal wall allowing not just invaders, but other harmful substances to cross and get into our bloodstream.

Another term for this process is intestinal permeability or “leaky gut”. This can lead the immune system to react to things it would not normally see as a threat such as proteins like gluten or casein (a protein found in dairy products).

When this happens, our immune system leaps into action, but often at the expense of triggering an inflammatory response. If this goes on for a prolonged period of time, systemic symptoms like fatigue, joint pain, stomach upset, and poor mood can develop. In someone with a genetic risk for autoimmune disease, the immune system can start to attack its own body’s tissues.

It is now thought that many of the chronic diseases that affect people in this country including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and depression can all be traced back to a disrupted microbiome.

Maybe the most fascinating role our microbes play is in our emotional wellbeing. Sayings like “I have a gut feeling” or “gut instinct” have their roots in this ancient relationship. Emotions like anger and fear can change what species live in the gut with some being suppressed and others increasing in numbers. They are also responsible for producing 80% of chemicals called neurotransmitters, the most well-known being serotonin. Serotonin is our “feel-good chemical”. Low levels can lead to depression, poor concentration, and inadequate sleep.

Research on the human microbiome is one of the hottest topics in medicine right now. It has long been known in ancient cultures to be vital to our health and survival.

Please schedule a complimentary 20-minute phone call to learn more about your microbiome and how it may be impacting your health.