POSTED: 26 Feb 2024

How to Hack Your Microbiome to Turbo Boost Your Health

Throughout our bodies lies a hidden universe teeming with life called the microbiome. This invisible complex ecosystem plays a pivotal role in our health and well-being. Whilst we’re teeming with these invisible communities of microbes throughout our bodies, the gut microbiome has in particular caught the imagination of scientists and health gurus alike. Research to date has shown vital links between the microbiota in the microbiomes throughout our bodies and our physical as well as mental health. In this article we immerse ourselves into the fascinating world of the human microbiome and how to hack it to boost your health.

What exactly is the Human Microbiome?

First thing’s first, we need to get some wording out of the way. The terms “microbiome” and “microbiota” are often used interchangeably but they hold slightly different meanings. The microbiota actually refers to the collection of microorganisms that live symbiotically within us. This includes trillions of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, yeast, fungi and archaea. The microbiome, however is the combination of the microbiota, their genetic material and the environment they inhabit.

The best way to think of the microbiome is as a dynamic ecosystem that is made up of a complex network of microorganisms that inhabit our body. Although these communities reside throughout our body, the gut microbiome has enjoyed the most research interest due to its huge role in almost every area of health and disease.

Where in Our Bodies is it?

The human microbiome is found throughout the human body. Each area hosts a unique community of microbiota which has adapted to it’s site’s specific conditions:

  • Gut: This is the most studied microbiome because it is dense and has a diverse microbiota. It also plays a significant role in our health and has been linked to a wide range of diseases.
  • Skin: There us a diverse array of microorganisms on our skin. Furthermore, different areas of the skin, harbour unique communities of microbiota. These protect against pathogens, influence immune responses and support the skin’s overall health and function.
  • Oral Cavity: The mouth is home to a complex microbial community that includes bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa. These microbiota play a key role in oral health, aid in the initial stages of digestion and protect against harmful pathogens. Moreover, imbalance in the oral microbiome can lead to dental issues like cavities and gum disease.
  • Respiratory Tract: Our airways contain their own own microbiome. It helps to filter and resist pathogens as well as influence airway health. Interestingly, the microbiota in the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat) are differ from those in the lower respiratory tract (lungs).
  • Urogenital Tract: This has a specialised microbiome that plays a crucial role in reproductive and urinary health. For example, in the vagina, the microbiome is dominated by Lactobacilli. These help to maintain a low pH environment which protects against yeast infections.

The Relationship Between Humans & Their Microbiome

We actually start to acquire our microbiome at birth. As the mode of delivery (vaginal birth versus caesarean section) influences the initial microbial exposure and shapes the newborn’s microbiome. As we grow, our diet, environment, lifestyle and experiences contribute to our microbiota shape our microbiome’s composition.

Our microbial community is resilient yet dynamic and responsive. It is constantly adapting to changes in our diet, environment, health and even aging. Our relationship with our microbiomes is symbiotic. In essence, we provide the microbiota with a home and nutrition. In return, the microbiome performs a myriad of functions that are vital for our survival.

What Role Does it Play in Health & Disease?

The microbiome plays a pivotal role in our health. It impacts nearly every aspect of our well-being and disease susceptibility. Here’s a closer look at the key roles of the microbiome:

  • Digestion and Nutrition: The gut microbiome is needed for breaking down fiber and other complex carbohydrates. It also produces short-chain fatty acids which are critical for gut health.
  • Immunity: The microbiome teaches the immune system to distinguish between friend and foe. This helps to protect against pathogens and ensures tolerance to beneficial microbes and self-antigens.
  • Metabolic Regulation: The gut microbiome can affect how we store fat, balance glucose levels and the hormones that make us feel hungry. Imbalance is linked to conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Brain Health and Behaviour: Gut microbes can produce neurotransmitters and other bioactive molecules that affect brain health. Imbalance is linked with several conditions including anxiety, depression and even autism spectrum disorder.
  • Protection Against Pathogens: A healthy microbiome competes with harmful pathogens for nutrients and attachment sites. It also produces antimicrobial substances to inhibit their growth. All this helps protect against infections.
  • Drug Metabolism: Microbial enzymes can activate, disable or modify drugs. This can influence their effectiveness and side effects.
  • Chronic Diseases: Imbalance in the microbiome is linked to a wide range of chronic diseases beyond the gut, including cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis and even certain cancers. The causes are complex and may involve inflammation, changes in immune function and production of toxins by harmful organisms.

Factors Influencing the Makeup of Your Microbiome

As you can see, the microbiome is very diverse, not just in the types of microbiota it contains but also in its distribution across the body. For this reason, the make-up of our microbiome is affected by a complex set of factors. These start from the moment we are born and we continue shaping this micro ecosystem throughout our lives. The key factors include:

  • Diet: This is probably the most important influence. What we eat can significantly alter the diversity and volume of microorganisms in our gut. High-fiber, plant-based foods tend to promote a more diverse microbiome. On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods and sugar can affect balance.
  • Birth method: Babies delivered vaginally are exposed to different maternal microbes compared to those born via cesarean section. This affects the initial colonisation of their microbiome.
  • Antibiotic: Although sometimes very necessary, antibiotics can disrupt the delicate balance of the microbiome. They kill beneficial bacteria along with harmful ones. For this reason it’s best to only use them when needed and for the minimum amount of time required.
  • Environment and lifestyle: Exposure to pets, living conditions, stress levels, physical activity and sleep patterns also affect the makeup of our microbiome.
  • Genetics: There is increasing evidence that our genes may have a hand in determining the make-up of our microbial communities.

Signs of Microbiome Imbalance

Microbiome imbalance, or dysbiosis, occurs when the steady-state of microbiota in our body is disturbed. This leads to lower microbial diversity, fewer good organisms and overgrowth of harmful ones. Here are some common symptoms that may signal imbalance:

  • Digestive Issues: Bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea and irritable bowel syndrome can suggest gut microbiome imbalance.
  • Chronic Fatigue and Sleep Issues: An unbalanced microbiome can affect nutrient absorption. This can lead to fatigue and sleep problems. The gut microbiome also plays a role in producing and regulating neurotransmitters and hormones (e.g serotonin and melatonin) which are critical for sleep.
  • Skin Conditions: There’s growing evidence behind the concept of the “gut-skin axis“. Inflammation in the gut due to microbial imbalance can affect the skin. This can trigger conditions like acne, eczema, rosacea and psoriasis.
  • Food Cravings: An imbalance in the gut microbiome can affect nutrient absorption and hunger hormones causing craving for sugar and processed foods. Overgrowth of harmful bacteria which thrive on sugar can drive these cravings.
  • Mental Health Issues: Emerging research on the “gut-brain axis” indicates that gut microbiome imbalances may be linked to mood swings, depression, anxiety and other problems. This is due to the gut’s role in neurotransmitter production including the ones that affect mood.
  • Autoimmune Diseases: An imbalanced microbiome may trigger or worsen autoimmune conditions where the immune system attacks your own cells by mistake.
  • Frequent Infections: A healthy microbiome forms a critical barrier against pathogens. When this is damaged, you become more vulnerable to infections.

How to Hack Your Microbiome for Optimal Health

It’s best to think of maintaining a healthy microbiome like tending a garden. It requires nurturing the beneficial organisms. You can hack your microbiome to boost your health by adopting lifestyle and dietary changes that promote a diverse and balanced microbial community. By hacking your microbiome, you can enhance digestion, boost immunity, improve mental health, and even reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Here’s how you can support and enrich your microbiome to improve your overall health:

Diversify Your Diet:

A varied diet rich in whole foods provides the nutrients that different microbiota need to thrive. Focus on high fiber foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. These feed good bacteria and support the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which are crucial for gut health. In addition, fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha contain live probiotics that can enrich your microbial diversity. Polyphenol-rich foods such as berries, nuts, seeds, olive oil and green tea can also help encourage good bacteria to grow.

Incorporate Probiotics and Prebiotics:

Probiotics and prebiotics can help support the health of the microbiota in your microbiome. Probiotics are live beneficial microbes which you can find in fermented foods and supplements. They can help restore the natural balance of your gut microbiome. On the other hand, prebiotics are fibers that the human body cannot digest. You can find these in foods like bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and artichokes. They nourish the good microbiota already in the gut.

Use Antibiotics Sparingly:

Antibiotics can be life-saving but they also disrupt the microbiome by killing beneficial bacteria along with the harmful ones. Use antibiotics only when prescribed by a medical professional and only for the period prescribed. Discuss with your doctor if there are alternative treatments or types of antibiotics that won’t impact your microbiome as significantly.

Manage Stress & Get Enough Sleep:

Chronic stress and lack of sleep can negatively affect your microbiome. Practices like meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises and mindfulness can help manage your stress levels. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night.

Stay Hydrated:

Drinking plenty of water has a good effect on the mucosal lining of the intestines. It also plays a key role on the balance of good bacteria in the gut. Aim for at least 8 glasses of water a day.

Exercise Regularly:

Physical activity can enhance the health of your microbiome. Moderate regular exercise is enough so try to find activities that you enjoy and can easily add into your routine.

Be Mindful About Personal Hygiene:

Obviously personal hygiene is important. However, overuse of antibacterial soaps and hand sanitisers can disrupt the natural microbial balance on your skin, scalp, oral and genital areas. In addition, exposure to a variety of natural environments can actually enhance the diversity of the microbiota in your microbiome.

The microbiome, particularly within the gut, is a vital part of our health. It influences everything from digestion and immunity to mental well-being. The area of microbiome research is rapidly growing. There are more and more studies revealing the role in the microbiome in potential treatments for various diseases. Also, since our microbiome profile is unique to us, it also opens up the potential for personalised therapies. Even better, you can employ simple lifestyle measures to support your microbiome improve your overall health.

At City Skin Clinic, we are devotees of personalised skincare. Our online skin clinic, offers safe and effective individualised treatments with prescription-strength ingredients like Tretinoin and Hydroquinone. Our doctors treat a range of skin conditions including acne and scars, hyperpigmentationmelasma and skin ageing. To start your personalised skincare plan, book a virtual video consultation or use our online consultation form. The journey towards great skin starts here.

Authored by:

Dr Amel Ibrahim
Aesthetic Doctor & Medical Director
Founder City Skin Clinic
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
Associate Member of British Association of Body Sculpting GMC Registered - 7049611

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