Getting to Know Your Microbiota
Mention bacteria and most people think of disinfectants or antibiotics. We’re conditioned to think bacteria are bad; they’re agents of disease, and need to be eliminated. End of story.
But of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s neither desirable—nor feasible—to eliminate all bacteria from our environments, or our bodies. Bacteria and other microorganisms (let’s call them microbes) play an important role in human health. While it’s certainly true that some bacteria cause disease, many are helpful. Their presence on and within our bodies is completely normal—and even helpful.
Take note: We’re embarking upon a new age of discovery. This time, we’re not exploring new continents. Rather, we’re mapping and cataloging the complex relationships among various microbes and the human body.
We’ve long known that microbes are here to stay. It’s fairly well known that they play an integral role in digestion, for instance. And most women know that the mixture of microbes colonizing the vagina can be normal and healthy, or not so much. Overgrowth by yeast, or harmful strains of bacteria, happens occasionally, often in response to some change: antibiotic use, high blood sugar, changes in diet, hormone surges, etc. This unpleasant experience serves to remind us of the delicate balance between beneficial microbes and harmful ones.
In recent years, it’s become clear that certain nutrients in food may—or may not—be converted into compounds that promote atherosclerosis, the root of most cardiovascular disease. The determining factor is the makeup of your gut “microbiota”. Microbiota (or microflora) refers to the mixture of microbes that have colonized a given part of your body, be it the intestines, the skin, the vagina, or even the mouth. This week, I’ll delve more deeply into this fascinating, unseen world that represents a bold new frontier in medicine.
Guinane CM, Cotter PD. Role of the gut microbiota in health and chronic gastrointestinal disease: understanding a hidden metabolic organ. Therap Adv Gastroenterol. 2013 Jul;6(4):295-308. doi: 10.1177/1756283X13482996.
Shipitsyna E, Roos A, Datcu R, Hallén A, Fredlund H, Jensen JS, et al. Composition of the vaginal microbiota in women of reproductive age--sensitive and specific molecular diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis is possible? PLoS One. 2013 Apr 9;8(4):e60670. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0060670. Print 2013.