Microbiome 101: What is it and why is it important?

At NLYTN Beauty we are building a platform to bring a deeper more personalized understanding of the microbiome to everyone. Yet, in order to understand why that’s worth caring about we must first answer “What in the world is a microbiome?

[Before we continue, I must warn you that once you learn about the microbiome, it will change how you view your self, your health and how you interact with the world around you.]

Ok. What is a microbiome already?!?

The human microbiome, also called your microbiota or microflora, is defined as all the commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space. These micro-organisms, tiny that they might be, number in the trillions and add up to 1-3% of your body mass.

Why haven’t I heard about this before?

Originally coined by Joshua Lederberg (aka the nobel laureate who discovered how bacteria have sex) in the 80’s, the microbiome didn’t really start to be talked about until the completion of the Human Microbiome Project in 2012.  The aim of this program was to get a map of all bacteria living on humans using a new technique of genetic sequencing.  After collecting over 5000 samples from 242 people, the results were amazing. Two exciting surprises being….

  • Microbes contribute more genes responsible for human survival than humans’ own genes.
  • Components of the human microbiome change over time, affected by a persons disease state and medication. However, the microbiome eventually returns to a state of equilibrium, even though the composition of bacterial types has changed.

Yes, But what does that mean for me?

To put it simply, it redefines what it means to be human. 90% of the cells in your body are bacterial cells and 99% of the DNA is bacterial.  The microbes in and on you can no longer be considered truly separate; as they help you absorb food, produce crucial vitamins, trains your immune system, and even regulates your mood. The microbiome is essentially a new organ that’s in constant flux.

Generally we talk about the human microbiome as 5 main parts:

  • The gut: the microbiota most people are familiar with having a role in the body due to yogurt companies hyping the effect of their gut probiotics. The gut also plays an exciting role in communicating with your nervous system called the brain-gut axis.
  • The mouth: is filled with very adhesive bacteria which form biofilm and cling to your teeth and cheeks, causing cavities and certain gum disease.
  • Vaginal: a crucial microbiome that when it’s out of balance can lead to Yeast or Urinary Tract Infections (UTI’s). It’s also a very important source of a baby’s first “flora”. With C-section babies more prone to asthma, allergies, type 1 diabetes and obesity.
  • The nose/lungs: a part of the body we used to think was sterile is filled with all manner of bacteria, and play an important role in defending our airways from pathogens by producing their own natural antibiotics.
  • And then there’s our current favorite, the skin microbiome: your first line of defense against the environment, keeps your immune system in check and reduces inflammation.

You are unique.

While the hope with the Human Microbiome Project was to find concrete answers and tie specific species to serving specific functions, what was actually found was much more complex. While your skin microbiome might be a little similar to my skin microbiome, no two microbiome are the same.  Outwardly they might appear to be serving the same function, but after sequencing you might find they are composed of completely different species. Even your own microbiome changes from day to day depending on what you eat, what you touch,  when you get sick, and even if you have pets.

What this all means is that in order to really understand what is happening with your microbiome and thus your health, it is essential to take a more precise and personalized approach—in both treating disease and defining health.

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