A UVA Heart & Vascular Center Initiative

Tiny Microorganisms Play a Big Role In Your Overall Health

Posted December 06, 2017

We all know that our bodies are made up of complex systems working in tandem to keep us healthy. There’s the cardiovascular system, the muscular and nervous systems. But did you know that microorganisms are also key to human health? No? Well, you’re not alone. The discovery is fairly recent.

In 2012, the National Institutes of Health launched the Human Microbiome Project to study the makeup of the human microbiome – that is, the colonies of bacteria, fungi and viruses that live on and in our bodies. There are more than one hundred trillion of these microbes for every person. And a majority of them reside in our gut.

This is important to remember because research has shown that the foods we eat can rapidly and drastically alter the composition of our microbiome. When we eat a healthy diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, the “good” bacteria in our gut, which helps with digestion and boosts the immune system, thrives. But when we overload on processed foods and excess sugar, this colony of bacteria becomes less diverse, increasing our risk for infection and inflammation.

Diet is not the only factor in maintaining a healthy gut biome. Getting enough sleep, exercising, avoiding stress, maintaining a healthy weight – all of those things we do to stay healthy – have a positive impact on our microbiome.

Research is still ongoing to uncover all of the many ways our microbiome impacts our health. Below, University of Virginia gastroenterologist Ann Hays, MD, answers a few commonly asked questions about the gut microbiome:

What determines the makeup of our gut microbiome?
The microbes in your intestines are present even before you are born. The early gut microbiota or gut flora come primarily from your mother. As babies swallow amniotic fluid, pass through the vaginal canal and consume breast milk, they are taking in protective bacteria that lay the foundation for a healthy microbiome.

Does your microbiome change over time?
Yes. Just about anything can impact your microbiome. In addition to diet, exercise or stress, travel or an illness may alter your microbiome. Even the company you keep can have a drastic impact. Couples who share a home have many similarities in their microbiome. If they have a child, those similarities increase. If they have a dog, the microbiomes of family members will be even more alike.

What’s the greatest risk of an unhealthy gut biome?
When your microbiome is depleted of diverse organisms, you are more susceptible to illness and infection. One serious and common infection is Clostridium difficile or C. diff, which is usually contracted after taking antibiotics. It can be fatal in up to 10 percent of cases. Sometimes C. diff becomes a chronic recurring condition that requires medical intervention. UVA Health System offers a new C. diff treatment for those patients for whom dietary changes and medications are ineffective. Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT) involves taking stool from a healthy donor and putting it in the colon of a person infected with C. diff. The healthy stool transfers beneficial, balanced bacteria to an infected patient’s colon. At UVA, we do this with a colonoscope, the same device used for a routine colonoscopy. Learn more about the procedure at uvahealth.com.