You may have already heard of gut microbiota from your doctor, dietitian, local chemist, family member, or very likely – the internet. But what’s the deal with gut microbiota? Why all the hype? This is a very hot topic in the area of research.  So, it is no surprise that more and more information is becoming available about gut microbiota.

Gut microbiota is the microbe population which resides in our intestine. It consists of tens of trillions of microorganisms. In fact, we are more bacteria than we are human.  How?  Well, the human body contains about 10 trillion human cells versus more than 100 trillion bacteria cells in the gut alone.

So to put it simply – gut microbiota is a large population of bacteria which reside in our gut. Gut microbiota is unique to each individual.  So no two people have the exact same gut microbiota – similar to fingerprints.

The terminology around gut microbiota can get confusing, even for researchers. Terms are often interchangeable. Gut microbiota is commonly referred to as gut flora, gut microbiome and gut microbial.  Despite some slight technicalities, these terms refer to the same thing.

Why is gut microbiota important for overall health?

It has been well established that a healthy and balanced gut microbiota plays a major role in the health of the host (you). Whilst everyone has a unique set of gut microbiota, collectively they still carry out the same functions which impact on health. Some of the well-recognised functions of gut microbiota include:

  • Assists with digestion of certain foods
  • Plays a key role in immunity (acts as a structural barrier)
  • Helps with the production of some vitamins (particularly B and K)
  • Key role in managing mental health, weight and gastrointestinal disorders

What influences changes in gut microbiota?

Our gut microbiota develops at birth.  It then continues to develop until we obtain our final stable microbiome at approximately three years old. Although our microbiota is ‘hard-coded’ so to speak, it evolves and adapts as we age. Factors such as genetics, family, environment, age, stress, diet and lifestyle all contribute to establishing our gut microbiota. Whilst most healthy individuals have similar general microbiota composition, the microbiota species composition is unique to each individual.  Environment and diet heavily influence species composition.

For example, gut microbiota composition will be different for babies who are breastfed vs formula fed.  They will differ between babies who are born via cesarean vs vaginal birth. Certain ethnic groups will also have different microbiota to help aid the digestion of certain foods typical of their cuisine.

How does gut microbiota impact on gut health?

Whilst gut microbiota are adaptive to change, such as dietary modifications, disturbances in the balance of gut microbiota can occur. We know this as Dysbiosis. When healthy, we live in a state of Symbiosis, which basically means ‘living in harmony’.

Dysbiosis is believed to be linked to certain health conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) like Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis, allergies, obesity and diabetes. This is likely due to one population of microbiota becoming more dominant or stronger, and another population becoming weaker.

This relationship between the balance of gut microbiota and gut disorders has resulted in an abundance of research around the potential benefits of prebiotics and probiotics as therapy for GI conditions, such as IBS and Crohn’s Disease. Prebiotics serve as ‘food for good bacteria’, whilst probiotics themselves are ‘good bacteria’ and may help retain the delicate balance and composition of microbiota. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on the topic of prebiotics verses probiotics!

It remains unclear as to whether Dysbiosis is a cause or consequence of chronic diseases such GI conditions, and remains a hot topic in the field of science research at present. Whilst this is a relatively new area of research, we are continuously improving our understanding of the impact of gut microbiota on health. This serves as an exciting and potentially promising avenue for the future treatment and management of chronic health conditions.

By Amanda Gaukroger

 

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