Why is microbiome so important? Gut instinct tells you

gut health microbiomeThe ancient Greeks believed all disease begins and ends in the gut. South African Jessica le Roux is on board with that thinking. She is doing a masters degree in nutrition. A focus the role of the bugs in our bodies  that promote health and are vital for proper physiological function.

In an introduction to a series on gut health, Le Roux says in our fervour to purify our environment of all microbial creatures, we are in danger of throwing the baby bugs out with the bath water. – Marika Sboros


By Jessica le Roux*

If your ear is anywhere close to the ground in the health world, you’ll have heard an unusual word. Some might say it seems more fitting of an Avatar homestead in a Spielberg movie than your general health news fodder.

But the research is showing it’s a word worth knowing about: 

Microbiome. There. I said it.

Yes, microbiome is a very scientific word. Bear with it for just a moment. You probably won’t regret the next five minutes.

Over the last 10 years, scientific biomedical interest in what is known as the human microbiome has grown. The importance attached to it is gradually filtering down to the general health-conscious community.

So what exactly is a microbiome and why does it count?

Jessica le Roux uses a hand puppet to teach a young child about good nutrition

Jessica le Roux uses a hand puppet to teach a young child about good nutrition

When you get down to it, a microbiome is really quite a simple concept. Basically, it is the colony of tiny little critters that are currently living in, on and around your body.

Each of us has a unique settlement of bugs residing within us. Kind of like a living, biodynamic fingerprint.

You will find microbial communities living in your gut, mouth, ears, vagina (if you are female) and on the surface of your skin. These microbes, mostly made up of various species of bacteria, outnumber our own cells 10 to one.

If you want to get a bit creepy about it, you can ditch the fingerprint analogy. Consider the idea that we humans are kind of like walking, talking little critter hotels.

Gross, yes. Important? Very.

The discovery of the role of beneficial microbes in health is really phase two in medical history’s discovery of pathogenic microbes. These are more fondly known as germs or by their street name “lurgies”.

When Louis Pasteur suggested that infinitesimally small creatures were causing all kinds of havoc in human health, he was broadly ostracised. Even after he had been proved right (if a Nobel prize doesn’t prove you’re right, I don’t know what does) the implications of his discovery were not fully appreciated.

However, the news gradually filtered through. There were “bad bugs” that caused illness and infection and the only good and proper defence against them was to eliminate them with military-type zeal. The pharmacological industry caught on to the concept. It developed a wide variety of “anti” drugs: antibiotics, antifungals and anti-parasite pharmaceuticals.

Companies introduced household commodities too: disinfectants, hand sanitisers and germ-busting cleaning products. The emphasis was sterility at all costs.

Let’s not forget that pharmacological and domestic interventions against pathogenic bugs have saved lives. That said, it’s becoming clear that the bad bugs were only half of the picture. There are also the good bugs.

These are bugs that are health promoting, valuable, maybe even essential to our proper physiological function. In our fervour to purify our environment of all microbial creatures, it looks like we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

As in the case of Pasteur’s discovery, we are probably not even close to appreciating the beneficial role of microbes. Not for long. The scientific community is all a-flutter about it and a research explosion is underway.

The complex world of our microbiota is the next dimension in health. It looks like we are in for a blockbuster of a health ride worthy of Spielberg.

  • *Jessica (Jo) le Roux is co-founder of Fed Nutrition, a non-profit organisation that provides nutrition education and resources to developing communities.  Her special areas of interest are traditional diets, early childhood nutrition and the human microbiome. Besides being a total food geek, she is an MSc nutrition student,  freelance writer, avid traveller and lover of yoga and tai-chi. Follow her on Twitter.