Explainer: What is a microbiome?

It seems now, more than ever, we are being told that we are what we eat. And whether we’re choosing a daily glass of kefir, mindful eating, or a cabinet full of pre- and probiotic bottles, sachets and pills, many of us are taking heed of the powerful relationship between stomach and self and adapting our lifestyles accordingly. A growing body of evidence suggests we’re right to do so, as studies have found strong links between our microbes and mental health, our gut and heart health, and even how a healthy gut can positively affect our skin.

While it was once thought that our bodies contained more bacteria than human cells (essentially rendering us walking, talking bug hotels) more conservative estimates suggest that, on average, we play host to about 100 trillion microbes, meaning our bacteria to human cell ratio is almost neck-and-neck, with bacteria faring slightly higher. The term ‘microbiome’ is one we hear often in relation to our bacteria – especially those in our gut.

So, what is a microbiome?

‘Microbiome’ is the term most commonly used in reference to the trillions of microscopic organisms that live in our gut (shorthand for our gastrointestinal tract). These are mainly bacteria but many are also beneficial viruses and fungi. It’s increasingly apparent that maintaining good bacteria to balance out the bad is vital to our health. The food and drink we consume feeds the bacteria inside us, which break it down to regulate our immune system, produce energy and create essential enzymes and vitamins. In her bestseller, The Good Gut Guide, Liz stresses that “precisely what we eat encourages different types of bacteria to thrive.”

The good, the bad…

And the ugly? Gut health certainly isn’t the most glamorous of topics, but making friends with our microbes can improve skin, mood, bloating and general wellbeing – helping us all to look and feel better. The key words to grasp when learning about looking after our microbiome are probiotics and prebiotics, and knowing the difference between the two is very useful.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts, which we think of as ‘good bacteria’. Illness, prolonged poor dietary choices and the use of antibiotics are all factors which can lead to an imbalance of our good bacteria. Probiotic supplements are useful if you’re on the move, such as this popular multi-strain from Bio-kult. These are great to top up your dietary intake, from enjoying probiotic-rich cultured and fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi and kraut. These boost the balance of beneficial bacteria. Perhaps it’s time to start kooking…sorry, cooking, your own at home.

What are prebiotics?

 Prebiotics are (generally) foods that feed the friendly microbes in our guts. They are non-digestible carbohydrates which help increase the activity of our good bacteria, causing probiotics to multiply. Think of them like a fertiliser for your garden of good gut bugs. Great sources of prebiotics include asparagus, globe artichoke, green apples, fennel bulb, peas, leeks, onions and garlic. Prebiotics can also be taken in supplement form – we like Bimuno’s daily powder supplements.


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