This week we’re delving right down into the microbiome, which is the vast and incredible world that lives mostly in your small intestine. It’s a big, big topic, and we will cover it over a few weeks (and even then, I feel like we’d really only be touching on the surface of it all!). But I hope it’s enough to spark and fuel your interest in your own gut health! I know learning about it all definitely did for me! Now, let’s begin!
Where do they all come from?
While you’re growing and developing in the womb, you actually have no microbes in or on you to begin with. You’re like a clean slate, waiting for whatever will be coming your way once you exit and begin your life outside the womb.
Your first exposure to microbes is during your birth. The way you’re born greatly affects what microbes you’re first exposed to. If you’re born vaginally, you’re exposed to all the microbes that dwell inside the body in the vaginal passage. If you’re born via c-section, your first exposure is usually to microbes that reside on the skin’s outer surface.
The microbes found in the vaginal passage and on the skin are totally and completely different, and whichever you’re exposed to first set the foundations of the beginnings of your gut flora. In fact, these initial microbe exposures can still be traceable in your gut flora years on. How incredible is that?
Whether you’re breastfed or formula-fed also greatly affects what microbes flourish in your gut. Breastmilk provides you with both pre and pro-biotics, which helps to then build up more good bacteria in the gut.* Studies have shown that this can even help reduce the incidence and severity of conditions like asthma and eczema in children.
From childhood to adulthood, the number of different types of species can grow from 100’s right through to the 1000’s! There are many things along the way that can affect how much you have in there and these can be:
- Environmental factors
- Lifestyle factors (exercise, stress, smoking/drinking etc)
- Chronic disease, especially those related to the gut
- Antibiotic use
Even things like your gender and ethnicity can affect your gut flora diversity to an extent. It’s such a complex, and unique world down there, and no two people’s gut flora are exactly the same. Even people living in the same household, in the same family, eating similar meals every day, may have similar but never identical gut flora. In fact, some can be totally opposite!
What’s actually down there?
Our microbiome is made up of mostly bacteria, but there’s also fungi and viruses too. You might be surprised to know that there’s even some pathogens lurking down there too, some lurking in the shadows just waiting for a good opportunity to strike (eg. when your immune system is compromised and your gut flora is not balanced well), and some living amongst the others and not causing any harm at all.
What do they do down there?
In short – everything. It used to be thought that all they did were help us to digest our food, protect our bodies from pathogens and help to synthesise Vitamins like K. But they’re so much more than that. These little one celled wonders are the most talented of chemists! They’re able to extract compounds from what we consume and transform them into an incredible amount of different chemicals, which either in turn feed them, destroy their competitors or help to either support or manipulate their host (us feeble humans!). For something so small, they’re able to do a hell of a lot!
I will stop here though because next week I’ll be exploring the ways in which they are able to control our minds. It’s incredible the effect that microbes can have on us, and the topic deserves it’s own post! From controlling our cravings to hacking into our brains, it’s absolutely crazy! So stay tuned for the next gut health post!
*SIDE NOTE: For all new mummas out there, I don’t want you to think though that natural births and breast feeding are the be all and end all. While they do provide a better exposure to microbes and foundations for a good gut flora, the main thing to remember is that the priority is that both you and your baby are safe and healthy during childbirth and afterwards. For some, this means cesareans and formula feeding and this is OK (no mum shaming or mum guilt here, there is enough pressure out there for mums as it is!).
If you do have any questions or concerns, or if you are looking for ways to naturally assist with helping to improve your baby’s gut flora though, people like myself or other Nutritionists and Naturopaths are always happy to help!