Microbiome: what is it?

Trillions of minute organisms live in our bodies. Together they form a kind of super organ: the microbiome. What is the microbiome and how does it work? How can I improve my microbiome? Simple tips to boost your microbiome – and your health.

12.03.2024 Daniela Schori 5 minutes

What is a microbiome?

Our body’s microbiome plays a crucial role in our health. It is made up of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms. Most of them live in our gut, but they also live on our skin, in our mouth and in other organs.

What is the difference between a microbiome, microbiota and microbes?

  • “Microbiome” describes the totality of all the microorganisms that colonise our human bodies, while microbiota refers to all the microbes that live in a part of the body
  • Microbes are microscopic organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi that colonise our gut, for example

What are the functions of the microbiome?

A diverse microbiome protects us from illnesses. The largest microbiome is found in the gut. The gut microbiome, or gut flora, affects our overall health and regulates processes such as digestion and our immune and endocrine systems. Other microbiota act only in isolation, so we will only touch on these briefly.

Microbiome in the gut

The microbiome in the gut forms a complex processing system that is essential for digestion. The different strains of bacteria break down foodstuffs, allowing your body to absorb the nutrients you need and produce essential vitamins and fatty acids.

A diverse and balanced gut microbiome helps you absorb nutrients more efficiently and make better use of energy. Research has shown that an imbalance in the gut flora can affect weight and promote obesity.

The gut microbiome combats pathogens and some bacteria even have the ability to neutralise carcinogens. Interestingly, the microbiota can also affect mood. A healthy gut is therefore not only important fo digestion and the immune system, but also for general well-being.

Other microbiomes and functions

Dermal microbiome

Your skin possesses its own microbiome, which acts as a first line of defence against pathogens. These microbes keep the skin healthy and resilient and promote wound healing.

Oral microbiome

The mouth also has a complex microbiome that supports oral health. A balanced oral flora is important for teeth and gums and can prevent inflammation and tooth decay.

Bladder microbiome

The bladder’s microbiome supports the health of the urinary system and may help prevent infections and inflammation of the urinary tract.

Pulmonary microbiome

The actions of the pulmonary microbiome are a more recent area of research, which demonstrates that the lungs also have their own microbiome that contributes to lung function and the immune defence system.

Vaginal microbiome

Our reproductive organs – and the vagina in particular – are also populated by microbes that help protect them from infection.

How to boost your microbiome

Nutrition plays a major role in creating a healthy gut flora, but it is not the sole factor. Here’s how to strengthen your microbiome every day:

  • Start with a balanced diet: the Mediterranean diet is ideal for boosting your microbiome
  • Microbes love the fibre from vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains and legumes, which ensure a diverse gut microbiome
  • Include fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir or sauerkraut as they contain natural probiotics
  • Avoid alcohol and sugar, which unbalance the gut microbiome, allowing unhealthy bacteria to proliferate
  • Ensure that you drink plenty of fluids: you should drink two litres of water or unsweetened tea per day
  • Incorporate regular exercise into your everyday life
  • Avoid excessive stress

Your microbiome can also be negatively affected by medications such as antibiotics, laxatives or painkillers.

Do probiotics promote the microbiome?

Probiotics are living microorganisms such as yeasts or lactic acid bacteria that can provide health benefits. They are found in certain foods or are available as food supplements. Probiotics support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut and can help restore the microbiome after treatment with antibiotics. Ask your pharmacist for advice.

In addition to probiotics, prebiotics also help promote a healthy intestinal environment. Unlike probiotics, they are not microorganisms: they are forms of dietary fibre, i.e. components of foodstuffs that are not digested by the body. The good intestinal bacteria feed on fibre, allowing prebiotics to promote the growth and activity of bacteria in the colon.

Microbiome and illness

A balanced microbiome can protect against many illnesses, while an imbalance gives rise to a range of complaints. Researchers have linked a disrupted microbiome to digestive disorders, autoimmune diseases and chronic illnesses.

Disrupted microbiome? Possible symptoms:

  • Digestive problems such as bloating, diarrhoea or constipation
  • Frequent infections
  • Slower recovery from illness
  • Skin problems such as acne, eczema or unusual dryness
  • Tiredness or lack of energy
  • Food cravings or changes in appetite
  • Mood swings or persistent low mood

Microbiome and the mind

The microbiome in the gut not only affects our physical health, but also our mental health. It is closely linked to the brain. Doctors often refer to this connection as the “gut-brain axis”. This axis ensures that the brain and gut exchange signals and information. A healthy gut microbiome can therefore improve mood and reduce the risk of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Conversely, psychological stress can lead to bowel problems such as constipation.

Microbiome in babies and children

The human microbiome begins to develop at birth. Our first contact with microbes is in our mother’s birth canal and through direct skin contact. The gut flora continues to develop during the first few months of life, influenced by nutrition and the microorganisms in the environment.

Developing a healthy microbiome in infancy and childhood lays the foundation for a strong immune system and good digestion, and has a positive impact on development. How do you boost a child’s microbiome?

Children who are exposed to a variety of microbes benefit from a diverse microbiome. Breastfeeding is also beneficial, as is a high-fibre diet and probiotic foods such as yoghurt and kefir. Exercise is also good for the gut. However, sugar and stress should be avoided – in short, a child’s microbiome benefits from everything that is good for adults.

The microbiome is considered to be mature by the time a child reaches the age of three. After that, it is important to maintain this diversity with a balanced diet, plenty of fibre and fresh foods, and an active lifestyle.

The microbiome is a complex system that has a major impact on our entire body and is thus more than deserving of our attention. You should therefore ensure that you keep your microbiome diverse and balanced. If necessary, consult a health professional who has experience in this area.

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