The Gut Jigsaw Puzzle
Wow, I can’t believe this is happening! My very first blog post. I have dreamed of this for years. And, the best part is that I get to write about my favorite topic, the Human Gut Microbiome!
Some of you already know me and some of you don’t, so I’ll fill in a few details here to lay a foundation for this blog and to provide a direction as to where I see it going.
In May 2005, I completed my Ph.D. in Microbiology, with a focus on HIV-1 research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. As a young woman with big, fancy dreams I started my graduate program in the hopes that I would be a part of finding the cure for HIV-1 infection and AIDS. It had always bothered me that people who were living with the virus suffered physically, mentally and even socially because others may have shunned them out of fear. Well, during my studies I learned a lot about the virus and Microbiology, in general. We never found the “cure,” but we added our piece of information to the puzzle. In my opinion, the most valued skills I walked away with were the ability to problem solve and the ability to read and understand scientific publications.
With the ink still fresh on the three new letters after my name, I began my teaching career. Over the years, I have taught at Colleges and Universities both in brick-and-mortar buildings and online. I have taught Biology, Microbiology and Anatomy classes mainly to Pre-nursing and Pre-Pharmacy students. It has been twelve years now. Teaching young people the beautiful details of life and how amazing their bodies are is a rewarding experience. I feel so honored to be the one who gets to teach them such things!
Over the years, though, I have been changed. As I have repeatedly instructed my students about how this World operates as an ecosystem, and how life is connected, and one species or event affects many others, my eyes have been opened! I have the blessed advantage of seeing the big picture from the vantage of the Biology book, the Microbiology book and the Human Anatomy book, all at once. Some professions, by their nature, focus in on one subject. They learn great details about one thing. They should. They are the experts. For me, the big picture has come more into focus over the years.
The human microbiome, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the (set of) microorganisms in an environment (including the body or a part of the body).” The word micro- means “extremely small.” The word biome in ecology, means “a large naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat.” The gut microbiome, therefore, is the large, naturally occurring community of microorganisms living in your gut (your intestines).
We have an ecosystem of bacteria, yeast, viruses, parasites and more living in our intestines (actually, all over and in our bodies)! They communicate, compete for food and space, kill each other, feed each other, make vitamins, by-products and more. One microbe affects the others and vice versa. And, all of them affect you! We now know that they “talk” to your immune system constantly. We know that they make products that you need to live a healthy life. We know that they break down various types of foods that you eat, so that you can benefit from the nutrients. The microbes in your gut can be a source of life to you, or a source of death.
Over the past decade, the study of the human microbiome has exploded! The number of research papers being published on the topic is mind-blowing. The National Institutes of Health has initiated the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) to fund research that will discover how the Human microbiome is related to health and disease. Every day scientists are discovering amazing, new things about the role our microbiomes play in our bodies. We are learning about the microbiome’s role in pregnancy, birth, inflammatory diseases, diabetes, cancer, and more. Everywhere you look, scientists are learning about the microbiome and getting excited! It’s like working on a massive jigsaw puzzle. We are living in the years where the corners and edges are filling in. We are starting to fill in the middle pieces. They are connecting and the picture is starting to take shape!
The problem is, the public knows very little. When I teach my college students about it, they sit with their mouths open. They start texting the new information to their moms, dads, and friends that they know who suffer from a gut-related inflammatory disorder. They say to me, “I’ve never heard of this before!” By the end of the semester, they are all eating healthier and thinking about their daily habits and choices more. This thrills me! But, it’s not enough. I am only teaching around 50 people every semester. I want to teach more than that. This is life-giving, life-changing knowledge that everyone needs to know. That is why I am writing this blog. It’s for you, and your babies, and your future generations!
So, pull up a chair and stay with me a while. Let’s watch as this puzzle fills in and together we learn the importance of our microbiome and reclaim our health!