Buzz around the microbiome is growing louder.
You may have read in the news: Our bodies are home to a vast community of microbes, forming “the human microbiome.” Research at this point is centered largely around the gut microbiome, and studies have been done on such diverse topics as obesity and the gut microbiome, fecal transplants to combat c. diff infections, and which bacteria can be returned to the gut via various foods and probiotics. We’re beginning to get comfortable with the idea that there are small, essential organisms living in us that keep us healthy, so much so that the microbiome is being recognized by the academic and research community as a new field of potential in human health. It’s so big that even the White House is putting force behind it, with the National Microbiome Initiative!
But the microbiome isn’t static; it changes and grows as much as its hosts do.
Bacteria at Birth
At birth, a baby’s microbiome is made up largely of bacteria from the mother’s body. As babies grow, begin to eat solid food, and crawl around, they come into more and more contact with bacteria in the outside world and develop a more robust microbiome, packed with bacteria from food, the outdoors, and the people in the baby’s life. Some researchers even believe the reason babies like to put everything in their mouth has to do with an innate knowledge that they need to expose themselves to as many bacteria as possible in order to build their immune system.
The World’s Effect on Your Microbiome
It’s not just people who harbor unique microbiomes; every little nook of our outside world has a specific community of bacteria too. The forest is different from the beach, the country from the city, and even those differ by region. In cities and towns, different neighborhoods actually have different microbiomes. It all depends on who lives there, what the plant and animal life is like, what the local industry is made up of, the climate, and the density of the population.
Families Share More Than Genes
As children grow up and become more independent, eating different foods from their parents and going different places, families living together maintain similar microbiomes. Couples in particular develop similar microbiomes. A hug isn’t just a symbol of affection—it’s also a friendly exchange of bacteria!
Interestingly, animals can join in the development of the family microbiome too. As families spend time with each other and their pets, their microbiomes begin to resemble each other. Even though Mom, Dad, and baby are sharing one meal, and Fido sticks (mostly) to his dog food diet, the whole family begins to effectively sync up their microbiomes. The skin microbiome demonstrates this syncing more than the gut microbiome.
One More Reason to Get a Pet
Pets can even help encourage this microbial syncing. One study shows that families with pets develop more closely linked microbiomes than families without pets. Think about that the next time you consider adopting a new kitten ;).
Me and My Microbiome
The various communities of bacteria that live in the natural world are constantly in flux, interacting with people, plants, and animals. Biomes are delicate ecosystems that are seeking gentle balance. The bacteria in our world don’t just affect us; they are also affected by us, by many of the modern lifestyle changes of the past few decades—from food to personal care to even our ventilation systems.
Now what can we do to keep our microbiomes in balance?