Role Of The Microbiome In Immune Function
The microbiome is a collection of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live within the body, known as microorganisms or microbes. The body houses trillions of these microbes and they are important for many aspects of health. Many people associate bacteria, viruses, and fungi with disease, illness, and poor health; however, the ones that live in the body all have their own special role when it comes to keeping you healthy. The majority of these microbes live in the intestines and on the skin.
The microbes that live inside the intestines are found in the cecum, which is a pocket in the large intestine. This collection of microbes is referred to as the gut microbiome. The bacteria of the microbiome are the most researched, and studies have shown that these bacteria cells outnumber human cells. There are also over 1000 different species of bacteria in the gut microbiome, each one just as important as the next.
Although there are some bacteria in the body that can cause disease, the balance of good and bad bacteria within the gut microbiome is what drives optimal health. So, why is the microbiome so important to human health? And what role does the microbiome play in immune function?
Why is the microbiome so important?
The microbiome is so important that without it, we would have a very difficult time surviving. It was once thought that the microbiome begins to form as soon as you are born; however, recent research suggests that infants can come into contact with microbes while they are still in their mother's womb. As people age, their microbiome continues to grow and change and diversify the gut bacteria, which affects the body in many different ways. Infants are exposed to microbes as soon as they start feeding on breast milk. The specific microbes that help to digest breast milk are known Bifidobacteria and play a role in growth.
There are some other microbes that are tasked with helping the body digest fiber, which in turn produces short chain fatty acids. Short chain fatty acids are vital for gut health, and fiber has been known to help prevent certain chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
The gut microbiome also plays a vital role in brain health. Recent research has shown that the microbes in the gut affect how the central nervous system functions. Since the central nervous system controls brain function, the gut-brain connection has a lot to do with the health of the microbiome.
What role does the gut play in the immune system?
When it comes to the gut and the immune system, the two act as a team to fight off infection. The bacteria within the gut microbiome control the function of the immune system by essentially communicating with the cells it’s made up of. Immune cells are each tasked with different jobs depending on whether they are part of the innate or the acquired immune system. When the gut microbiome can communicate effectively with the immune system, it can help alert the immune system to action as well as control how it responds to pathogens.
Other research has shown that the gut bacteria can also help to return the immune system to optimal health after a person suffers from illness, infection, or disease. As it turns out, when the body is recovering from disease and/or an imbalance in gut bacteria, the microbiome and the immune system work together. One particular study found that three types of gut bacteria in particular were responsible for an increased amount of neutrophils, which are immune cells. This correlation shows just how important the microbiome is to immune health.
How to keep your microbiome healthy
To keep the microbiome healthy, there are plenty of things you can do to ensure that it is running at its best and the bacteria are doing their respective jobs. The first focus should be diet. Diet plays a large role in the microbiome, and there are plenty of things that you should be eating (or not eating) to keep things running as they should. One example is limiting your intake of artificial sweeteners; research has shown that artificial sweeteners stimulate the growth of bad bacteria due to an increase in blood sugar.
For your microbiome to be as healthy as possible, you should focus on eating a diverse range of foods. Different foods feed different bacteria and can lead to more diversity within the microbiome, which improves its overall function. Fermented foods and probiotics have also been shown to be helpful when it comes to balancing the good and bad bacteria within the gut. Fermented foods can reduce the number of disease-causing species in the gut, while probiotics help to restore gut health by introducing more healthy microbes.
Plant-based diets have also been shown to encourage a healthy microbiome. Studies have shown that vegetarian diets can reduce bacteria within the body that could lead to inflammation or disease. Foods that are rich in polyphenols are also encouraged, because when the microbiome breaks them down, it stimulates healthy growth of bacteria.
Avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary can also help to keep the microbiome healthy, because antibiotics do not discriminate between good and bad bacteria. They're designed to kill all bacteria, and they do their job regardless of the type.
Your microbiome is a vital piece of the health puzzle. The good news is that taking care of it can be as easy as eating properly and making sure you restore good bacteria whenever you have an imbalance.