The role of the microbiome in our health
03 March 2021 | Opinion
'Microbiome' is really just a fancy collective term for all the microorganisms (in other words organisms that are only visible with a microscope). Our bodies are full of these organisms – literally trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi!
While some bacteria, viruses and fungi are associated with diseases, others are actually important for your immune, hormone and metabolic systems because they play a crucial role in how our brain and mental health functions.
Lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic and extensive research now points to the important relation between our gut and immune systems.
You see, most of this microbiome I am referring to resides in your digestive tract - mostly concentrated in a pocket within your colonic structure called the cecum, or on your skin. In fact, 70% of our immune system is located in our digestive tract.
About 100 trillion cell systems of bacteria, viruses and fungi reside in our digestive system. So, in reality we are made up of more bacteria than human cells. The microbiome could actually be considered as an extra organ system in our bodies.
Recent research shows just how profound the gut-immunity connection is; that there are powerful links between certain bacteria within the spectra of the microbiome and the risk they pose for conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and how diet is the number one determinant for the health of our microbiomes - even more so than genetics. This has been a real wake-up call regarding the impact of the microbiome on the immune response and chronic disease in the body.
Several studies revealed that the gut microbiomes of Covid-19 patients looked radically different compared to those of the uninfected population. Consequently, revealing that 'bad bacteria' were a huge predictor of the disease.
But studies are also showing that not all foods or food groups have the same impact on all individuals' microbiomes.
This therefore then prompts for personalised nutrition, and herein lies the opportunity to identify within our own native and cultural cuisines which food types may be considered as microbiome friendly.
In the Owambo culture, there is a common term used to describe any general pain located in the abdomen, 'endjadja' (intestine in English). In my earlier professional years, patients from the Owambo tribe would mention the term 'endjadja' to me, I would shy away from it because to me it seemed too broad and vague. But I am now reconsidering this and am intrigued to explore it in greater depth with regards to its relation to the microbiome concept.
Whoever came up with that term 'endjaja' might have had traditional wisdom in knowing that the gut has everything to do with our immunity.
As trends go, the medical world is now catching up and making huge investments to fund comprehensive microbiome research, to develop new therapies, testing models and personalised nutrition models.
In Africa, we are exposed to diets rich in fibre, and we ferment our foods as a preservative method, and so we should seriously consider joining the movement and see how to play our part.
Factors that influence our microbial make-up include, but are not limited to, medicine intake, exercise, sleeping patterns, smoking, hygiene practices and, of course, diet.
When your microbiome environment is disturbed, we call that dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis is when there is an imbalance between the good and bad microbiomes.
Most of us have been through a course of antibiotics throughout the course of our lives. Even babies lately are placed on heavy antibiotic treatments, rightfully so if needed.
These treatments however are done without necessarily replenishing the good bacteria, usually known as probiotics.
This is an essential step to improve your gut health and keep dysbiosis at bay. So, let's take a look at how to do this.
How to improve your gut microbiome:
We have what we call prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are foods that are high in fibre and serve as food for all your good bacteria in the gut. Probiotics are your good bacteria and yeasts.
A diet rich in both prebiotics and probiotics improves the status of your gut microbiome. Hence, the status of your health. Otherwise, when in dire need, one can supplement with good quality pre- and probiotics. There are several great products on the market lately. Although a thorough investigation may be helpful in determining which ones you are lacking in, how much you have to take, and how often.
Foods that are considered prebiotics are the following:
Berries (I would consider our own local berries in this category)
Foods that are high in probiotics are the following:
Good gut health need not be a complex journey, but it is important to start sooner rather than later.
Your gut will thank you! The above lists are by no means exhaustive and I am keen to hear of any other types of pre or probiotics found locally you may know of. In that vein, please let me know which to add to the list and investigate further. After all, local is lekker!
* This article was compiled by Dr Penehafo Haitamba- Shindume, a trained naturopathic doctor with 10 years' experience in private practice. She is registered with the Allied Health Professions Council. She is a member of the Namibia Association of Naturopathy, Homeopathy and Phytotherapy as well as the South African Naturopathy Association.