The community of microorganisms that live in our gut, called the gut microbiome, has been at the centre of a growing body of research indicating that these microbes play an essential role in our health. Imbalances of the gut microbiome have been correlated with several physical and mental disorders ranging from inflammatory bowel diseases to metabolic diseases to even depression.
One thing that has become clear from this research is that everyone’s gut microbiome is unique and that there are many different factors that can influence the composition of a person’s gut microbiome. The most influential factor is the food we eat, but there are also several other, albeit less influential factors, that can impact our gut microbiome as well. These include factors such as exposure to environmental toxins, medications, living environment, stress and exercise. Being aware of these other influencing factors can be an important step towards promoting good gut health. Below we highlight a few of these more unusual factors that can influence the gut microbiome:
Quitting smoking is one of the most beneficial actions we can take to safeguard our health. We all know that smoking can cause cancer and other respiratory diseases, but research is now showing that smoking also plays a role in our gut health. Smoking is a major risk factor for several gut-related disorders such as Crohn’s disease, colon cancer and gastric ulcers. Cigarette smoke can cause widespread tissue damage, and result in harmful particulate matter being absorbed by the body’s mucus membranes, including those in the gastrointestinal system. Microbiome studies have observed smokers have a different gut microbiome composition to non-smokers and that important markers such as microbial diversity are reduced, suggesting smokers have compromised microbiome health.
It is important to maintain a hygienic household, especially with young children who are more at risk for infection because of their still-developing immune system. However, the choice of household cleansers can impact a child’s developing gut microbiome. A recent study surveyed 757 infants exposed to household disinfectants compared to eco-friendly cleaning products or common soaps and detergents and observed disinfectant use was associated with a change in the gut microbiota at age 3-4 months and an increased risk of being overweight at age 3 years.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) painkillers such as ibuprofen and aspirin are among the most commonly used medications, but do they influence the gut microbiome? According to the existing research, microbial diversity is not influenced by short-term use of these medications, but they can alter individual gut microbiota.
If you are a coffee drinker, you will be happy to hear that coffee contains beneficial plant polyphenols as well as soluble fibre that can be used by the human gut microbiota. A small study in humans and a laboratory-based study both observed an increase in beneficial Bifidobacterium spp. during coffee consumption or exposure. And a large-scale human study observed that coffee consumption was correlated with an increase in microbial diversity, which is associated with good health. However, excess caffeine consumption is a gut irritant so caffeine should be limited if it causes gut discomfort.
Having a furry pet can be very good for your gut microbiome, and especially for young children whose microbiomes are still developing. Furry pets such as dogs can increase the diversity of the gut microbiome, which is important in young children to help train their developing immune system. Several studies have identified a lower risk of allergies in children who had exposure to cats or dogs as an infant. Another large study observed that pet ownership decreased the risk of childhood obesity and atopy in infants and increased the abundance of beneficial microbes in the gut microbiome, such as Ruminococcus spp. and Oscillospira spp11.
Although there is still much to learn about how the gut microbiome influences our health, we are learning more about the different factors that may be influencing our gut microbiome. If you are curious how different factors in your life might be influencing your own gut microbiome, you can use a gut microbiome testing service, such as the Microba Insight test, to monitor your gut microbiome before and after exposure to factors that may disrupt your gut microbiome. Microba uses advanced metagenomic sequencing technology which allows identification of microorganisms to the species level and insight into the potential functions of your microorganisms
One of the best things you can do for a healthy microbiome is to eat a healthy diet with plenty of fibre in the form of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. But it is important to keep in mind that there are other factors that can also play a role in shaping your microbiome health.
Dr Paula Smith-Brown is an accredited practising dietitian and Head Dietitian at Microba.
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