The human body contains trillions of fungi, viruses and bacteria that are together called the microbiome. Not all of them are bad for us. In fact, some of them are very important for the proper functioning of our immune systems, weight and heart health, among other things, which we will discuss here.
The microbiome present in our gut particularly has some useful functions. Let’s take a look at what they do, specifically as we age.
What Does Your Gut Microbiome Do?
Most of the trillions of microorganisms or microbes that live in our body are typically present on our skin or inside our intestines. And most of the microbes present in the intestines live in a pocket of the large intestine that is known as the cecum.
They are called the gut microbiome. The most studied microbiome are bacteria and they have many good uses.
What you might not have known is that the number of bacteria cells in the human body is more than the number of human cells. There are about 30 trillion human cells in our body, whereas the count of bacteria cells is about 40 trillion.
And just in the gut microbiome, there are about 1,000 bacteria species and they all have their own unique and specific roles to play. Some of them are the cause of diseases while others keep you healthy.
Together, all these microbes weigh about two to five pounds. That’s as heavy as the human brain. And all of them together function like a whole new organ. Now, there are a lot of illnesses related to aging that is linked to the way these guy microbes function.
This includes diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems. But studies have also found that as we age, the way these microbes function also changes. These changes in the microbiome have their own special connection to different diseases or the medication we use for those diseases.
These findings tell us that changes in gut bacteria have a direct impact on the process of aging in humans. So, making sure that these microbes function a certain way can help us control the way aging progresses in our bodies.
How It Affects the Body
Over the course of human history, the human body has learned to evolve along with the microbes in our bodies. It is very hard to actually survive without these microbes functioning the way they do and should.
The gut microbiome has an impact on our bodies right from birth. Our very first exposure to these microbiomes begins as the baby passes through the birth canal of the mother. But there are also studies that suggest that it’s possible that babies are exposed to microbes even before birth when they are in the womb.
Now, as we grow, the gut microbiome starts diversifying, which leads to the development of several other species in our bodies. It is good for the health of the gut for these microbiomes to be extremely diverse.
And this diversity of the microbes depends on the kind of food you consume during your lifetime. The impact these microbiomes have on our bodies is described in the following ways.
Bifidobacteria is a kind of bacteria that grows inside the intestines of babies. It helps them digest the sugars present in breast milk which plays a key role in their development. It also helps them digest breast milk.
There are other bacteria that help the body digest fiber by producing fatty acids. These fatty acids play a role in maintaining gut health. Fiber is also important in helping the body gain weight, regulate diabetes and heart disease along with determining the risk of cancer.
Gut microbes are also important for the functioning of the immune system in our bodies. The microbiome communicates with the immune cells and make sure that the body reacts appropriately when there is an infection.
Evidence also suggests that gut microbes have a role to play in the maintenance of the central nervous system, which is responsible for the brain to function effectively. This means they have a role to play in brain health as well.
Now, aging is a process that has an impact on the intellectual as well as the physical functioning of a human being. We know that over time, some of these functions deteriorate and that is not uniform.
There are plenty of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that determine how aging takes place in the human body. But if we know the factor that is causing the most damage, we have an opportunity to intervene and regulate it.
The microbiome makes sure that the environmental factors that condition the immunity and neurological functions of the body can be conditioned such that the risk of disease is reduced.
This includes the risks of age-related disease. But the way the microbes function changes as its host, our human body, changes which is what happens with age.
Its Link To Brain Health
Let’s expand on a couple of factors that are, more often than not, directly the ones that affect raging. There are some types of bacteria that are known to help in the product of a chemical called neurotransmitters in the human brain.
Serotonin, the antidepressant, is one of those chemicals and it’s usually made in our guts. It’s also important to note here that the human gut is actually connected to our brains through nerves and many millions of them at that.
So, it should be clear that the gut microbiome has an impact on the health of our brain. It usually plays a role in the way messages are sent and received to the brain through the nerves that connect it to the gut.
Several studies show that individuals who have psychological problems actually have a different set of bacteria in the gut compared to their healthier counterparts. That is how we know that brain health is directly affected by the microbes in our guts. Now, we don’t yet know if this is the result of lifestyle or food habits.
There are also some small studies that have shown that it is possible to improve symptoms of mental health diseases like depression by consuming certain types of probiotics.
Its Link To Heart Health
Like brain health, gut microbes are also known to have a link to the health of our hearts. Recent studies have shown that gut microbes have a role to play in promoting triglycerides and good cholesterol. Now, there also are unhealthy bacteria that may cause problems to the heart. So, it is important to know which ones do what.
The bad bacteria produce TMAO or trimethylamine N-oxide. It’s a chemical that can add to problems like blocked arteries and cause a stroke or a heart attack. Certain bacteria are known to convert nutrients like L-carnitine and choline to TMAO. They are usually found in animal-based food and increase the risk of heart diseases.
But there are also good bacteria in the gut microbiome like lactobacilli that are known to reduce bad cholesterol levels when they are consumed as probiotics.
Gut Microbiome and Healthy Aging: Parting Thoughts
We have known that there are good bacteria in our bodies that help us with important functions like digesting our food. But the gut microbiome does so much more to keep our health in check, which ultimately impacts aging in a direct manner.