A study has uncovered millions of previously unknown genes from bacterial groups not only in the gut, but also in the skin, mouth and vaginal microbiome. These findings triple the amount of data on the human microbiome that was previously known, highlighting the microbiome's significant role in overall health and predisposition to disease.
Differences in an individual's microbiome can play a large part in many aspects of health, including immunity, gastrointestinal health, hormones, metabolism and even neurological disorders, like anxiety and depression. Emerging evidence is also suggesting a link between an imbalanced gut and development of allergies such as eczema.
Dr Cris is an integrative medical doctor, author, corporate speaker, and media doctor. As an expert in integrative medicine Dr Cris specialises not just in treatment of illnesses, but in the attaining of optimum health. She has particular interests in preventative health, lifestyle medicine, hormone health, weight loss, fatigue and sleep problems, digestive issues, as well as women's health.
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Question: Can you share with us the results of the new Human Microbiome study?
Dr Cris Beer: A new study of the human microbiome, published in the journal Nature , gives us the most detailed information to date about characteristics of the personalised microbiome, this is the genetic material of all the microbes, which live on and inside the human body, and its significant relationship with our health.
The study has uncovered millions of previously unknown genes from bacterial groups not only in the gut, but also the skin, mouth, and vaginal microbiome.
Question: What is microbiome?
Dr Cris Beer: Our digestive system plays host to tens of trillions of microorganisms, with at least 1,000 different species of known bacteria and over three million genes. There are more organisms in your microbiome than cells in your entire body. The human microbiome consists of the genes these cells harbour, and involves the community of good bacteria and other organisms that make up the environment of our digestive system, or our gut.
They interact to help us in many ways, but also help themselves and help us to absorb nutrients and digest food that cannot be digested by your gut.
Our gut microbiome begins to develop at birth – in utero our gut is sterile then during birth the microbiota starts developing and within the first hour, we start picking up useful bacteria from the environment.
It's important to have the right balance of good and the -not-so-good' bacteria in our microbiome this is where probiotics come in. They can help overcrowd the bad bugs in the microbiome but populating the good bacteria.
Question: How can we find out more about our microbiome?
Dr Cris Beer: If you're finding that your stomach constantly has a mind of its own – alternating from bloating to diarrhoea, constipation to cramping – then it could be time to look a little deeper into the microbiome.
It's thought that when the amount of good and bad bacteria become unbalanced in the microbiome, issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), immune disorders, skin conditions such as eczema, other health problems, and even things like vaginal thrush may occur.
If you feel like something could be wrong with your gut health, speak with your healthcare practitioner.
Question: What is the relationship between microbiome and allergies such as eczema?
Dr Cris Beer: When it comes to skin conditions, such as atopic eczema, it may all come down to your gut. This is because the gut supports our immune system, and ultimately the health of our skin. There is evidence that suggests using probiotics can reduce symptoms of atopic eczema.
Feeding the body -good' bacteria, in the form of probiotics, has been shown to assist in addressing a variety of health issues, such as IBS, eczema and general wellbeing. Composed mainly of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, probiotics may help support the gut composition in children and adults.
Question: What can we do to overhaul our microbiome?
Dr Cris Beer: Particularly with the silly season right around the corner (cue: a time of indulgence and often a little too many drinks!) your body, your gut and microbiome may need help to minimise damage you do to your body.
Some of my top tips for overhauling your gut health, include:
Remove gut stressors. Removing and reducing -bad' gut bacteria is the first step when overhauling your gut. Cutting out refined sugars, processed foods, caffeine and alcohol will ensure the good guys function effectively, helping your body to fight off infection. Also, be mindful of your stress levels and take some time out by participating in some mindfulness, yoga or meditation.
Boost your levels of -good bacteria with a combination of pre and probiotics. Choose a high quality, clinically-trialled probiotic that is suitable for daily use (unless you are trying to treat a specific condition, like eczema, IBS or vaginal thrush). Some probiotics even have a dual-action formula containing probiotic and prebiotic strains.
Assess your diet. In addition to eliminating processed foods from your diet, it's also important to replenish the body with a diet rich in fibre and hydration. Aim to include fibre-rich foods like beans, lentils, sweet potato, oats, apple and banana in your diet, and 8 cups of water or 2 litres daily at minimum.
Exercising for at least 30 minutes per day can help improve gut health, stimulating the bowel to keep us -regular' and support digestion.
Question: What are five things we can learn from our vagina?
Dr Cris Beer: Being uncomfortable -down there' is not as uncommon or embarrassing as you think. Woman can get vaginal flora imbalances from time to time, and for varying reasons (it's not always due to sex!). The good news is, there are some things you can notice down there to tell you what's up.
Your diet is poor: If you're eating a lot of foods like bread, sugar and MSG, and drinking a little too much alcohol too often (hello, Christmas!), then you're likely fuelling your body with yeast, which can impact your microbiome. Cut back on processed foods and sugars and ensure you're eating a mix of nutritionally dense foods including fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, proteins and fibre. This will give your body, and vagina, the best cover against bugs, infection and nasties.
You're stressed: Stress can release hormones called corticosteroids that can suppress certain cells in the immune system, inhibiting our body's ability to fight infection. To help manage and cope with daily stressors, it's vital to ensure you're getting enough shut eye – a minimum of seven hours sleep per night, exercising moderately for at least 30 minutes a day and cutting caffeine to help reduce anxiety and tension.
You've been on a course of antibiotics: It's not uncommon to get thrush after a course of antibiotics due to the loss of good bacteria from the vagina. I always recommend supplementing with a good quality probiotic both during and after the antibiotic course to help keep the good bacteria in-check. Opt for a probiotic with clinically-trialled strains and one specifically designed for women's health to help treat the specific condition. Also consider fuelling your body with powerful prebiotic foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, and a full-fat yoghurt.
You're ovulating: If you notice you have more discharge than usual at certain times of the month it could be a sign you're ovulating. Normal vaginal discharge is a healthy way for your body to get rid of fluid and old cells, and it's normal to have a little more than usual during ovulation.
You need to up your hygiene: Women are more prone to Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) than men, which refers to a bacterial infection in the bladder, kidneys, ureters or uretha. It's important to keep hygiene intact – particularly after sexual intercourse. Urinating after sex can help flush out any bad bacteria before it has time to travel to your bladder, helping to minimise the risk of infection.
Question: Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: What's the difference and why do we need them?
Dr Cris Beer: You've probably heard about the benefits of probiotics in looking after your good bacteria but what about prebiotics?
Probiotics are -good' bacteria – also known as -live microorganisms'. Probiotics are most commonly found in the forms of bacteria Lactobacillus and Bfidobacterium, as well as certain yeasts. This friendly bacteria is essential for maintaining good health and vitality. Probiotics help to restore and replenish the good gut bugs and aid the digestive system by helping to break down your food's tough fibres, enzymes and proteins.
Prebiotics essentially acts as food for probiotics, helping the good gut bugs to survive in the bowel. Prebiotics are non-digestible food fibres that enable the good bacteria to stick to the bowel wall and help stimulate their growth, increasing bowel frequency and providing digestive balance.
Combining probiotic and prebiotic rich foods in your diet, as well as supplementing with a capsule probiotic, may help to protect your body against a variety of gut issues, and even mood disorders. This will ultimately support your health and wellbeing long term.
Speak to your healthcare practitioner if symptoms persist. Always read the label. Use only as directed. Supplements may only be of assistance if dietary intake is inadequate.
Interview by Brooke Hunter