Not long ago we used to think that a good bacteria is a dead bacteria. We’ve been scared of the microbes and tried to build up a safe sterile environment around us. However this is not exactly what nature has intended.
During the past decade it has become clear that we live in symbiosis with the microbes living on and inside us — our microbiome.
Already during birth we are coated with microbes. This is the seed to the formation of our very own microbiome. And our microbiome is one of the fundamental building blocks of our immune system.
About 80% of our immune system resides in the lining of your gut, and the microbiome is in constant contact with it. A healthy, resilient gut microbiome relies on high richness and biodiversity.
Richness is the total number of different bacterial species in your microbiome
Diversity is the amount of individual bacteria from each of the bacterial species present in your microbiome.
Let’s compare these two concepts in a group of 30 people with different professions. Richness would be the sum of all the different professions we have — e.g teacher, doctor, scientist, police and lawyer. Diversity on the other hand shows how many of these different occupations we have — let’s say 2 teachers, 1 doctor, 5 scientists, 2 police officers and 20 lawyers.
Well in this group of people, the richness can be high, but the diversity surely is not, as the vast majority of people are lawyers. And in case of some accident, we do have 1 doctor, but this could prove to be not enough.
A rich and diverse microbial community is much more capable and resilient. All of the different species carry about 2–20 million genes necessary for producing metabolites — small compounds that all regulate different functions in our body. Some of these compounds are responsible for vitamin production, some for digesting the food or communicating with the brain, immune system or responsible for other crucial functions in our body. The larger pool of these compounds we have, the better we are equipped to face different situations.
Secondly, a diverse community is more stable because it prevents the overgrowth of harmful pathogenic bacteria. Let’s imagine that instead of these 20 lawyers we have 20 burglars. It would be very difficult for our 2 policemen to fight against all of the burglars. And when we think of the microbes, they reproduce very quickly meaning that instead of 20 burglars we’ll soon have 40 of them, against maybe 3 or 4 policemen.
Scientists have found that low microbiome diversity can lead to various chronic illnesses — digestion problems, bowel disease like IBD, metabolic diseases like obesity and type II diabetes, neurological disorders like anxiety, depression, Parkinson’s disease, heart or kidney disease and many other illnesses.
As David Attenborough says in his latest movie “Biodiversity is the key to balanced nature. And species can only thrive if everything else around it is thriving.” This is also perfectly true for our microbiome. A healthy microbiome is a diverse community of microbes and this can be achieved only by enabling our microbes a good environment to live in.
In upcoming stories we’re going to write more about how we can build up a healthy environment for our microbes. So, stay tuned to learn more about the importance of gut health and balanced microbiota.
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Sources and interesting reading:
- Diversity, stability and resilience of the human gut microbiota (Nature 2013)
- Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health (BMJ 2018)
- The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life (by Rodney Dietert)
- Gut: the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ (by Giulia Enders)