College of DuPage Nursing Student Sharon Villa wrote for Healthy Lombard that the great American poet Walt Whitman once wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” While in 1855, Whitman was undoubtedly referring to the human condition, it was only 30 years later that the human microbiome was discovered, proving that people actually do contain multitudes; more than 100 trillion microbes residing and coexisting in the human body.
Today, we continue to study the human microbiome, and our research has led us to unimaginable possibilities for scientific advancement. Since 1880’s, we have grown to understand that microbes are responsible for causing a number of conditions that plague people today. Bacteria such as E.Coli and Staph have become household terms, often evoking a sense of fear, illness or disease.
Microbiologists are now beginning to understand that there are certain types of “good” bacteria that may boost gut health and help prevent disease. So how do we gain control of our microbiome, and ensure the “good” bacteria predominate in our guts? One answer is our diet. From the moment a baby is born, they begin to establish their microbial flora. The most predominant species seems to be a bacteria called Bifidobacterium.
Researchers have observed a huge difference pertaining to diet when considering the intestinal flora of a breastfed baby compared to a formula-fed baby. In a recent study in the International Society for Microbial Ecology, the loss of Bifidobacterium in formula-fed babies “may lead to a variety of negative consequences such as a predisposition to autoimmune/metabolic diseases (like allergies and childhood obesity), whereas, breastfed babies benefit from prebiotic human milk oligosaccharides that preferentially feed gut bacteria like Bifidobacterium that are beneficial.
The balance of our microbiome also seems to have far-reaching implications when it comes to serious disease. Researchers have also connected our gut microbiome with cognitive ability, metabolism, weight gain or loss, mood, and depression. Specific changes may involve inflammation leading to cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome. A study conducted at the University of Edinburgh and Dundee linked “good bacteria” to the prevention of Parkinson’s Disease, explaining that certain beneficial bacteria prevent the formation of toxic clumps that end up starving the brain of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is a key chemical that is lacking in those with Parkinson’s Disease and responsible for coordinating movement in the body.
As for what constitutes a good diet; a study conducted by Penn State researchers recommends eating walnuts, as two to three ounces of walnuts a day may improve gut health and reduce the risk of heart disease. The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University found foods containing prebiotic and probiotic supplements are in the process of being explored as interventions to manipulate the gut microbiome and potentially improving health status. In short, it’s the long-term dietary habits that shape our microbes and our lives.