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Finding Balance: Gut Microbiota and Microbiome

Believe it or not, there are over 100 trillion microbes living within the human body, which is approximately tenfold the number of cells that comprise the body. The progression of science has enabled the ability to learn more about these microorganisms that comprise approximately five pounds of bacteria in the average healthy adult.

When discussing the bacteria, yeasts and fungi that colonize the human body, the terms “microbiota” and “microbiome,” are often used interchangeably, and assumed by many manufacturers of probiotics supplements and consumers to mean the same thing. There are distinct differences between the two and understanding the terminology more clearly can help you gain a better perspective on how probiotics work.

 The Human Microbiota

Overall, the human microbiota comprises vast populations of microbes that reside within the body. These groups of organisms include bacteria, viruses and fungi, as well as single-cell animals known as protists and archaea. The microbiota – the “world” of microbes -- contains approximately up to 100 trillion cells -- over 1,000 unique microbial species.

Within the overall discussion of the human microbiota, it is the “gut microbiota” that is often the primary focus in mass health media and from food, beverage and dietary supplement brands. The microflora that lives within the gut work to stimulate the immune system, which allows it to more easily defend against pathogens and harmful bacteria, many of which do find their way into the GI system. When the gut microbiota is in healthy balance, unwanted pathogens are less likely to colonize the GI tract and cause health issues.

The gut microbiota contains organisms that are both beneficial and harmful, and in healthy individuals, they reside together in a somewhat harmonious balance. Seemingly innocuous factors such as antibiotics can result in overgrowth of unwanted bacteria. Though all people share certain microbes, each person’s gut microbiota is unique.

The Microbiome

Each of the microbial cells in the human microbiota contain genes, which are, in total, considered the microbiome. Confusing? It’s easiest to think of it this way: the microbiome would not exist without the microbiota, as it is the microbiome is the genetic makeup of these trillions of cells; the microbiome is primarily viewed at the genetic level instead of the cellular level.



The microbiome is important for many reasons, performing actions that are crucial to sustaining human life. Imbalances and disruptions in the microbiome have been linked to numerous diseases, including cancer, autism, malnutrition and celiac disease. It has even been termed the “second genome” after the human genome. These genes contained in the microbiome interact with the human genome, working to fight against diseases and perform a variety of beneficial functions.

There are five major functions performed by the microbiota help support overall health and wellbeing.

Digestion

Many people don’t realize that they would not be able to digest most of the foods they eat if it weren’t for the help of countless bacteria (probiotics) that live within the gut. Many probiotics available as supplements produce enzymes that are crucial to the proper digestion of complex sugars called “polysaccharides” (typically found in plants). Polysaccharides provide our daily intake of essential vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. The state of the microbiome, then, has a huge influence over how much nutrition value we’re able to derive from the food we eat.

Immunity

As much as 70% of the immune system can be found in the gut. Naturally, the gut microbiota has a direct effect on immunity, and when we’re exposed to different organisms, the beneficial microflora in the gut takes over and acts in defense. This helps the immune system to “learn” which pathogens to defend against and which to invite, thus stopping the body from attacking beneficial bacteria.

Mental Health

There’s a definitive connection between the gut and the brain, and it exists in the vagus nerve and the enteric nervous system—often referred to as the “gut-brain axis.” Microflora within the gut can interact with the central nervous system, helping to regulate disruptive feelings such as stress and anxiety. Because the gut microbiome can also affect serotonin and dopamine levels, many researchers believe that poor gut health can lead to depression.

Skin Quality

Looking for clearer skin? The answer may be found in improving balance in gut microbiota. The skin is covered in a layer of microbes, which serve to protect against invasion by harmful bacteria or funguses. Amazingly, some of these bacteria are capable of converting skin oils into moisturizers that keep the skin healthy and soft.

Protection from Toxins

The microbiota (particular the bifidobacteria) helps to protect the body from toxins, which attempt to pass through the lining of the intestinal wall to reach the bloodstream. In this way, the microbiota works to decrease inflammation, produce antimicrobials and maintain tissue integrity in the presence of undesirable toxic elements.

Improving Gut Microbiota Balance

As the gut microbiota can have such a tremendous impact on overall health, it’s important to try to improve microflora balance as much as possible. This can be a challenge—especially for those who currently deal with severe gut microflora disturbances. With a bit of focused effort, however, you can help to ensure your microbiome is properly balanced, bringing you to a great state of well-being.

Here are four ways to bring back that balance.



1. Cut Sugar Intake

There’s no denying the fact that sugar activates our pleasure receptors, producing feelings of contentment and comfort; but beyond the obvious – promoting weight gain, and risk of diabetes type II, among other diseases, uncurbed sugar intake is also harmful in other ways. Many sugars are digested extremely fast — faster than beneficial microbes are able to deal with them. Instead, these sugars feed organisms such as candida, which can promote further sugar cravings and create a state of mental fog. The solution? Simply pay a bit more attention to your sugar intake and cut refined sugars as much as possible. Also, read labels: “added sugars” are now appearing on food and beverage labels – so you can avoid them, as natural foods such as fruits contain sugar.

2. Avoid Antibiotics

There are plenty of scenarios in which taking antibiotics is necessary—in the presence of life-threatening infections, for example. Unfortunately, antibiotics also tend to be heavily over-prescribed, which has led to the proliferation of resistant “superbugs” like MRSA. Antibiotics work by killing off harmful bacteria and are very effective at doing so — they also kill beneficial microbes at the same time because they are indiscriminate killers. If you’re looking to maintain or improve gut microflora balance, be sure to avoid taking antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.



3. Eat More Fiber

Diet matters when it comes to balance in the microbiome, largely because beneficial microbes convert foods into energy and nutrition. While simple sugars work against these microbes, fiber can help them operate at peak capacity. This is why fiber is often considered a “prebiotic,” as well as why it should always serve as a major part of your diet.

4. Take a Probiotics Supplement

While eating plenty of fiber (and fermented foods) can help communities of gut microbes thrive and be victorious in fighting harmful pathogens, the best way to restore balance if things are off track in the gut is to take a probiotics supplement. Lactobacillus paracasei in particular can be very effective and also helps promote energy. Bifidobacterium lactis is another strain known to have beneficial effects on gut health.

Recap: Microbiota vs. Microbiome

To recap, microbiota consists of the entire population of microbes in a specific location of the human body; “gut microbiota,” “skin microbiota,” etc. The microbiome, conversely, is the whole collection of genes that make up the microbiota.
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