Over the past decade, studies around how bacteria influence our health have gained attention. The human microbiome is a community of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other multicellular microorganisms. These little “bugs” exist in our gut, on our skin, on our computers and desks, and even on the foods we eat.
The elements of our microbiome can interact with our bodies in various negative or positive ways. Specifically, bacteria can produce molecules that are bioactive. This means once the molecules are in our bloodstream, they can influence gene expression, how our immune system works and our overall health.
The food we eat can cause the bacterial communities in the small and large intestine to change. Eating a lot of salt and fat puts stress on the intestinal tract, which leads to an imbalance in the gut’s bacterial content (a condition called dysbiosis). Intestinal inflammation and a decrease in the diversity of bacteria that make up the gut microbiome are common with dysbiosis. Inflammation creates more space between the normally tightly connected cells that line the digestive tract and lets more potentially harmful substances—such as bioactive molecules—from the gut enter the bloodstream. Once in the blood, these substances can interact with our tissues and cause symptoms such as pain, bloating, poor memory and fatigue.
Researchers have found links between changes in the microbiome and the development of diseases such as hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome and obesity. Studying how a healthy microbiome works to help our body work in healthy ways will help scientists learn more about how bacteria influence health and disease.
More research on how diet and other lifestyle choices cause bacterial changes may lead to promising natural therapies, such using probiotics, prebiotics, antibiotics and dietary changes to help keep us healthy.
Our gut microbiome continues to evolve with us. Understanding its role in health may shift how we think about treatment strategies for conditions, including obesity, heart disease and neurodegeneration, that have been hard to treat and don’t have a cure.
Jessica Bruning, MS, is a PhD candidate studying integrative physiology at Michigan Technological University where she works in the Cardiovascular Physiology Laboratory. Her research interests include gut microbial metabolites neurogenic hypertension and how changes in diet affect these systems and lead to cardiometabolic diseases.
Qinghui Chen, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Michigan Technological University. His research interests include understanding how the central nervous system regulates cardiovascular function and studying body fluid and sodium homeostasis in both physiological condition and cardiovascular diseases.