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Gut bacteria: friend or foe?

Updated Thursday, 14th November 2013

Quick! Our guts are being invaded by bacteria! ... But is it a bad thing?

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Bacteria in utensil Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: © Alexander Raths | Dreamstime.com Inside all of us, and on our skin we are hosts to millions of bacteria. From the moment we are being born (and passing out the birth canal), our little friends are getting ready to create their habitats and ‘shape’ our future health. 

Scientists have even recently been looking at making ‘artificial’ gut models to study the ways we process food, and how the different types of bacteria in the gut affect our health.

One of the major areas we find bacteria is of course in the gut. These bacteria generally congregate where there is slower transition through the system – the end of the small intestine and throughout the large intestine. Many factors can interact to decide how these colonies will develop: our surroundings, our parents, our genetics, our age, as well as what we chose to ‘put into’ our bodies.

The ‘microbiome’ is the term used to describe these communities of bacteria which are classed as being commensal (living on or in an organism and gaining benefits from them without harming them), symbiotic (having an interdependent relationship) and pathogenic (capable of producing disease).

Many different areas of the microbiome are being studied to discover more about how these colonies interact with us. Some of these include the genetic make-up of these colonies (Metagenomics), and others the chemical fingerprints that are left behind after specific cellular processes occur (Metabolomics).

What is fascinating about the microbiome is that their presence can not only affect the way we process food, but also affect how our immune system works, how susceptible we may be to suffering from different diseases or even how susceptible we may be to putting on or losing weight, to name but a few. 

It is also now believed that our microbiomes are almost unique to each of us.  We can have familial similarities but the actual make up of each microbiome is totally specific, personal and functionally relevant. This microbiome can become unbalanced by a number of factors for example antibiotic use or disease process and this makes the studying of this area not only complex but also diverse and exciting.

So how will this affect us all in day-to-day life?

Gut dysfunction is something that nearly the whole population will experience at some point in their lives. A classic example of this is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It is thought 10-20% of people will experience symptoms of IBS but causes are still not well defined. Whether it is stress related, food intolerance related or bacterially related we still don’t know.

This is part of where studying these colonies of bacteria can help us. If we know the make-up of these colonies, and we know what metabolic products they are producing we can hopefully then tell how we need to treat it. 

It can also mean we are able to diagnose problems in a much less invasive way, making the process not only more comfortable, but cheaper and have less risk of complications.

So remember – it really is true – what you put into your bodies really will affect what you get out of it!

 

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