The Microbiome

By Sandra Samuels, MD

Research Scientists are studying the importance of our gastrointestinal tract, and its network of trillions of microorganisms, which constitute the Microbiome. These consist of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, which coexist to protect us against disease.

Our microbiome is influenced by many factors, particularly diet, and can act both beneficially and in harmful ways. A healthy microbial community, with a balanced symbiotic culture has an indeterminate list of positive actions. It will buffer the effects of a genetic predisposition to obesity, detoxify heavy metals, promote gut motility, protect against food allergies, synthesize K and B vitamins and improve heart health.

Overuse of antibiotics, which disturbs this system, can lead to presence of harmful and resistant organisms in the bowel (e.g. C. difficile), causing inflammation and damage to the body.

Links connect the microbiome to chronic bowel diseases, mental illness, and immune disorders. The microbiome is also implicated in the development of several chronic conditions ranging from atherosclerosis and thrombosis to obesity and insulin resistance. Evidence is now accumulating which shows links between colorectal cancer (CRC) and the microbiome.

In cases of resistant diarrhea due to certain infections (C. difficile colitis) or inflammatory bowel diseases ( Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s), stool from a healthy donor has been transplanted by enema into a patient, and may improve or be curative in some cases. This is believed due to transplant of the healthy microbiome.

Probiotics are preparations containing some bacteria, which, taken by mouth, in theory, promote a healthy microbiome, and counteract the negative effects of harmful agents. Frequently, strains of Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces are prescribed, but preparations vary, depending on the symptom complex. Their use may be beneficial especially in antibiotic-associated diarrhea and acute infectious diarrhea, and research continues on many other medical conditions. They are found in foods containing live cultures, e.g. yogurt, some cheeses, also sauerkraut.

Prebiotics contain complex plant fiber, which is not digestible by the host, but which can beneficially nourish the good bacteria already in the large bowel or colon. Prebiotics are suppose to help the good bacteria grow, improving the good-to-bad bacteria ratio. Naturally, they are found in bananas, oatmeal, onions, garlic, whole grains, and soybeans and Jerusalem artichoke

Prebiotics and Probiotics as supplements are costly and are not FDA approved nor reimbursed by insurance companies. Eat healthy food and avoid antibiotics unless advised by your medical provider.