Ever since the invention of the microscope, we have known that we are not alone in (and especially on) our own skin. A close look reveals tiny mites and millions of bacteria all living harmoniously and mostly unnoticed by us. And that is just on our skin.
With more recent advances in genetic sequencing, scientists have discovered that all the bacteria we host, collectively called our microbiome, outnumber our own cells at least ten to one. And nowhere is this more evident than in our gut.
If your skin is crawling right about now, it may help to know that our microbiome likely plays a large role in keeping us healthy. Evidence to support this is growing every day, with many calling our microbiomes the new frontier in science.
While we know that the presence of certain bacteria can cause disease, study of the microbiome tells us that the absence of certain bacteria is also associated with disease. This appears to be true with common gut problems like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. In other words, these organisms may play a protective role against disease.
Newer research now suggests that the same may be true for the viruses we host in our gut. More specifically, the viruses hosted by our bacteria. These viruses inside of bacteria are called bacteriophages and they are the subject of a study, published this summer (2016), in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Little is known about these bacteriophages and the researchers wanted to find out if they shared any commonality among healthy individuals. It turned out that 23 bacteriophages were shared by more than half of the 64 healthy people in the study. This means that 23 bacteriophages (viruses) were associated with a healthy gut.
They further reported that “These shared bacteriophages were found in a significantly smaller percentage of individuals with gastrointestinal/irritable bowel disease.” That is not to say that the viruses are necessarily causing the gut to be healthy; it may be that they are only there because the gut it healthy.
Nonetheless, the association and commonality of viruses found in these healthy guts strongly suggest that–just as we can have a healthy microbiome – we may also have a healthy colonization of viruses.
And because these viruses are called bacteriophages they are calling their population in our gut a phageome. The theory they are developing is this: a healthy phageome helps support a healthy microbiome, which in turn supports a healthy gut.
This does not mean that if you have a stomach ailment you should go out and shake hands with someone who’s got a cold or flu virus, or that you should eat more yogurt, for that matter. All of this science of the gut is so new that few absolute conclusions can be drawn yet.
But, when they can, we may be at the start of a whole new way to diagnose and treat disease. And at the rate this science is advancing, it might just happen in our lifetime. In the meantime, if you are not feeling well, make an appointment to see your doctor.
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