Drawing parallels from nature’s wisdom is enlightening and edifying.
Nature’s vast ecobiomes consist of unimaginably myriad life forms. Its rich forests and grasslands endow positive energy to all that exist within its aura. In the mind’s eye, the serene co-existence of biotic and abiotic processes of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, are sources from where inner visions, instincts and intuitions guide.
From a more physical perspective, healthy ecobiomes absorb greenhouse gases and reduce global warming. All in all, they can positively charge the atmosphere by reducing occupational hazards and improving environmental health, to endow physical and mental health.
In a smaller scale, yet crucial, splattered all over our bodies, the biological ecosystems of microbes, consist of countless species. They hold striking similarities to the majesties of nature in their functions. Microbes, invisible to the naked eye, are also pivotal as springs of well-being for both body and mind.
While nature’s flora and fauna have a grand role in securing environmental integrity, microbes in the body protect, individually, from important diseases. Their multi-dimensional impact seems especially important for the human immune system, and is crucial today, in view of the resurgence of infective diseases.
The gut ecosystem
Comparable to the functions of nature with immense potential in infusing us with holistic health, our colonic or large gut microbial environment, a site of plentiful microbes in the body, has enduring consequences to both physical and mental health.
Microbes in the large gut are involved in host metabolism in a number of ways. They provide calories and nutrients important for growth and development.
They ferment undigested dietary constituents like carbohydrates, proteins and fats, producing a gamut of substances. Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), branched fatty acids, ammonia, phenolic compounds and gases such as hydrogen sulfide and methane are related to well-being.
Their produce are pivotal too - gut microbes produce vitamins and influence food components such as isoflavones, found in soybeans, chickpeas, pistachios and so on. They can activate drugs and affect responses to specific treatments.
High fat diets and overconsumption of high calorie foods result in obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus, which are pan-global diseases today. Their role in metabolism and ability to harvest energy from foods reduces risks of life-threatening diseases stemming from such metabolic disorders, somewhat shielding from overindulgence!
There is important cross-talk because of them. Through contact with the gut mucous layers, microbes are responsible for cell-to-cell communication and can influence immune responses.
They protect mucosal surfaces from disease-causing microbes which enter the body through their portals, and are key players in immune responses of the vital mucosal immune system, guarding against a spectrum of potential immediate and long-term diseases.
Pivotal microbial links
Like a tree with infinite spreading branches, microbial effects are dispersed to many systems away from the gut. Their impact expands, touches or affects other important functions in the body. SCFAs can transmit micro-signals influencing metabolism and genes. Gut microbes link to the liver, the brain, the heart and the kidneys. Hormones, neurotransmitters, metabolic processes and diverse signalling molecules mediate these distant actions.
We may well be able to modify microbial interplay in our bodies. For instance, the cause of some auto-immune diseases, cancers and heart diseases may also be traced to specific gut ecosystems. Diet or supplementation and particular treatments may alter them to benefit us.
Analogous to nature’s serenity engulfing our thoughts and brain, it has long been known that the gut and the brain are associated in more ways than one. Microbial linkages unfold to shed some light on how emotion and physical states are often interlocked. The ‘social brain’, key brain regions during different social and emotional tasks, has relationships with the microbe-gut-brain axis. Their role in the development of treatment options for autistic spectrum disorders is of immense interest.
While early inhabitants of nature’s ecobiomes provide essentials in determining future characteristics of the system, microbes in breastmilk enrich early gold standard nutrition, empowering health fundamentals in the first 1000 days of life. The early gut ecosystem, through breastfeeding, encourages microbial profiles such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, and influences maturation of the yet developing immune system. These early events drive far- reaching implications in total health.
Abundant complex sugars in mother’s milk, the human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), nurture a valuable ecosystem. Such prebiotics empower gold standard infant nutrition, and, in concert with other breastmilk constituents, reduce allergies to fortify well-being in the nursing child.
Integrated biological impact of microbes in the human body and their roles in our health, continue to baffle us, in a challenging environment. Biological ecosystems, nurtured by a kaleidoscope of events, prevails as a powerful factor to weigh in on, when nurturing holistic health.
The invisible residents of the human body contrast only in form to nature’s grandeurs, but both offer glimpses of survival advantages harnessed through obligatory interdependence with other life forms.
Dr Prameela Kannan Kutty is Professor of Paediatrics at Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia.
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