For centuries, we have associated bacteria with germs and disease. While this link still is valid, "The vast majority of the microbes that live in our bodies are a vital part of our ecosystem, and they're essential to our health. They're not disease-causing germs as we've been taught," according to Georgetown University Hospital gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan.
An estimated 100 trillion microbesâ??our microbiomeâ??live in and on us. They outnumber our own cells ten to one and weigh roughly 2 to 3 pounds. While the intestines and colon have the densest number of microbes, bacteria also live on the surface of our skin and in our mouth, vagina, lungs, nose, navel, and bladder.
Much as the Human Genome Project attempted to improve our knowledge of human DNA, scientists with the Human Microbiome Project, administered by the National Institutes of Health, are currently sequencing microbes in the human microbiome and determining what role they play in human health. With better understanding, scientists hope to help the medical community develop diagnostic and therapeutic tools for a variety of diseases.
Preliminary research indicates that the microbiome has a role in regulating immune-system and metabolic disorders such as diabetes, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, allergies,high cholesterol, and even some cancers. Other potential targets for microbiome therapeutics include obesity, circadian rhythms, offensive body odor, and mental disorders.
Because microbes in the human body can modify the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, researchers are investigating microbiome interventions to treat schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and other neuro-chemical imbalances. One team has found that transferring the gut microbiome from obese mice to healthy mice can increase the healthy mouse's body mass in a short time. (Kurzweilai.net)
As our microbes influence us, scientists have found that our lifestyle can influence our bacteria in return. In order to support beneficial gut bacteria, we need to ingest foods that feed them. Probiotic foods such as garlic, asparagus, leeks, onion, oats, lentils, and artichokes, as well as fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles all promote the growth of gut bacteria associated with good health. Conversely, both patients and the medical community need to be aware that drugs like steroids, hormones, acid-blockers, and some pain relievers can damage the microbiome.
Our lifestyle can also influence the genetics of the microbiome. "Mom's stress during pregnancy can impact her offspring's development, including the brain, through changes in the vaginal microbiome that are passed on during vaginal birth," according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. "Maternal stress can alter this initial microbe population as well as determine many aspects of the host's immune system that are also established during this early period."
The current use of antibiotics targets harmful bacteria, but antibiotics also kill the microbes that promote health. For those who do not naturally develop gut microbes to fight harmful bacteria and maintain healthy systems, scientists are experimenting with transplanting fecal bacteria from healthy individuals. This practice appears promising for some patients, but it remains controversial.
After Washington spent billions of taxpayer dollars on the Human Genome Project, many proponents expected that identifying disease-related genes would enable pharmaceutical companies to create therapies for those disorders. We now see that biological systems are much more complex than they once imagined. Scientists therefore are investigating a wide range of other factors that influence disease. Thus far, they have developed a better understanding of the vast symbiotic relationships between bacteria and humans. Now physicians need to combine this new insight with their growing understanding of environmental, lifestyle, and genetic factors that also contribute to health and disease.
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