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More than a gut feeling: How microbes are a necessity in our health

The microbiome, which comprises microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses and reside within and outside our bodies, is vital for our holistic well-being

More than a gut feeling: How microbes are a necessity in our health
In layman’s language, technology at its minutest form is nanotechnology. (File)

Did you know that up to 90% of the human body is made of trillions of microorganisms such as bacteria, virus, fungi and archaea—so much so that we have more microbes than cells? The very thought of bacteria or virus in the gut may sound dreadful but the fact is that these microbes—a majority of which live in our gut, particularly in the large intestine—are a necessity for our health.

The human microbiome, which comprises bacteria, archaea, viruses and eukaryotes and reside within and outside our bodies, has been linked to health, mood and now skin care and the link between the brain, skin and the gut is crucial for holistic well-being. The gut, which is referred to as the ‘second brain’, is composed of trillions of microorganisms that directly affect the brain and brain signals, influencing many areas of human health from innate immunity to appetite and energy metabolism.

Medical experts feel that these microbial metabolites (an intermediate or end product of metabolism) affect gut-brain signaling and immune response and are found to have a role in mood, anxiety, cognition and pain which are exerted via the gut-brain axis. This is the reason why ingestion of prebiotics or probiotics has been used to treat a range of conditions including constipation, allergic reactions and infections in infancy, and inflammatory bowel syndrome.

“Absorbing probiotics can significantly improve the mini-mental state in case of Alzheimer’s disease while numerous gut bacteria have been identified as protective against the genesis of tumours. Inclusion of probiotics or dietary fibre, targeting the gut, benefits human health and could potentially reduce obesity. In pregnancy too, dramatic changes of the maternal microbiota affect the newborn’s immunity. Skin diseases like psoriasis and dermatitis are found to be benefitted by both gut and skin microbiome,” says Dr Ruchika Jain, chief dietician, Fortis Hospital Vasant Kunj, Delhi.

While the microbiome influences nutrition, metabolism, physiology, and immune function, it also helps in creating harmony between bacteria present outside and inside. “They act as guards and prevent thieves (diseases) from entering the body,” says Dr Jitendra Kumar, chairman—renal sciences and transplant medicine, Accord Super Speciality Hospital, Faridabad.

According to Dr Narendra Shetty, chief wellness officer, Kshemavana, a naturopathy wellness centre in Bangalore, gut dysbiosis (a reduction in microbial diversity) is one of the major factors for a majority of diseases and can be termed as imbalance in the bad and good microorganism in the gut. “It leads to intestinal disorders like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), leaky gut, yeast infection, colitis and extra intestinal disorders like autoimmune disease, obesity, eczema, allergy and asthma. Gut dysbiosis blocks the secretion of serotonin. Serotonin acts like a hormone and neurotransmitter, which is mainly responsible for one’s mood and behaviour, any alterations above the normal limit may lead to mood disorders, IBS and also block the immune response,” he says.

As the microbiome protects against disease, any insult to a microbiome leads to toxins that result in diseases. “Any alteration to the gut-brain connection during microbiome can result in depression/ anxiety and other mental disorders. Or any damage to the gut microbiome leads to mood disorders because the serotonin receptors are maximum in the gut. If there is a bad microbiome coming from the alteration of serotonin receptors it can cause brain fogginess. Allergies, eczema, and psoriasis are skin disorders that can happen due to overgrowth of bad bacteria. Even autoimmune diseases affect most organs at some point, depending on the type and severity,” says Delhi-based Dr Anjali Hooda, CMD – LiveNutriFit, a preventive and integrative healthcare organisation.

The real problem arises when bad bacteria outnumber the good ones. They feed into the mucosal lining of the intestine, it further gets depleted—bacteria, viruses, parasites, and germs interact with intestinal tissues. “Toxic particles that are supposed to exit the system in your stool squeeze between the large holes in your gut and enter the bloodstream. The immune system wakes up to counter this attack. A phenomenon where your immune system starts attacking your own tissues can lead to autoimmune conditions (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, alopecia, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, etc). While managing autoimmune conditions, we emphasise on addressing and repairing the gut first,” says Luke Coutinho, a holistic nutrition and lifestyle coach and founder of You Care – All about YOU, a digitally curated e-commerce platform for sustainable products that offers a wide range of chemical-free , natural and verified products coming directly from farmers.

Not just skin-deep

Skin has microbiomes that function as the exterior interface of the human body with the environment. Similar to those in our gut, skin is inhabited by a number of microorganisms and these have essential roles in protecting against invading pathogens. This is why detoxification of skin—or avoiding products like creams base or powder—is essential as part of skincare routine. Also known as skin fasting, it is a concept that helps improve the skin function naturally or abstain from routine makeup for a few days.

“Skin is the largest organ of the body,” explains Delhi-based dermatologist Deepali Bhardwaj. “Skin fasting ‘detoxifies’ skin inside out, allowing it to naturally maintain itself. This means the interaction of flora (microorganisms) which reside on the skin do not get inhibited by any topical application. It helps in the natural process of healing and taking away the dependency of skin care aides that our face has become dependent on,” she adds.

Bhardwaj advises to have a weekday regime of applying night creams with anti-ageing benefits and for weekends to apply organic serum. “Use different face wash for weekends. This way, your skin can breathe and naturally throw toxins out,” she says, adding how skin flora like mites and yeast help in skin rejuvenation once a week.

New York-based Beekman 1802, an LGBTQ+ owned skincare company that offers goat milk skincare products, launched a mobile tool accessible through its e-commerce site called My Skin Biome in June this year. The tool scans the face to review facial microbiome, wrinkles and skin texture. It also tells the user about how their skin microbiome impacts results and suggests recommended products.

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Skin health, especially science-focused skincare, is becoming an important aspect for skincare and cosmetic brands like Unilever, Shielded Beauty, Germany-based Dr Barbara Sturm and hair regeneration brand Nutrafol that offer microbiome products. A recent example of cutting-edge research by British multinational consumer goods company Unilever has scientists working to create a new generation of personal care products to support skin’s barrier. The scientists are finding ways to trigger the skin’s natural ceramide-producing processes, thereby enabling it to heal from within.

Through the research, the brand has not only discovered how the skin can be stimulated to maintain its own production of ceramides, but also that this production leads to a direct improvement in skin quality and hydration. Now that Unilever has been researching the skin microbiome for more than a decade, it includes scientific, AI-assisted, machine learning into the space which can determine skin-care issues like acne but when included in skin-care brands can make effective and sustainable products in the beauty, personal hygiene and well-being space.

“Skin microbiome is a fast-moving space in the beauty and well-being sector. In the last 15 years, we have invested in fundamental and translational research to understand the skin, scalp and oral microbiome. In fact, the last five years have seen an almost 40-50 fold increase in the products that have come out in this space in the world,” says Vibhav R Sanzgiri, executive director, R&D, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), global head personal care R&D skin cleansing category and site leader HUL and Unilever R&D India.

Science-backed innovation is seeing an explosion of gut microbes in the last 15 years. “The microbiome cannot live without us and we cannot live without it. We started with gut microbiome and now branched out to skin microbiome. An imbalance in the microbiome of the skin, scalp and oral surfaces can cause conditions such as eczema, atopic dermatitis, acne, dandruff and gingivitis,” says Samantha Samaras, head of science & technology, head of clinicals, beauty and wellbeing, and personal care R&D at Unilever.

The benefits of the microbiome have also been linked to human health and mood. “This area of expertise can benefit in terms of skin and other holistic wellbeing benefits around mood, oral hygiene,” says Samaras. For example, the company’s research-based acne products and skin care developments will work on specific microbes to improve skin condition especially for those who have acne.

Unilever has more than 100 patents and peer-reviewed publications in this space. Through its beauty and personal care approach, it has developed products like Dove’s Deep Moisture Body Wash which are microbiome gentle and take the ‘do no harm’ approach. This is about mild or pH-balanced products that address the issues at hand and also work to preserve good microorganisms through the use of mild surfactants and actives and maintain the skin’s ability to support a healthy microbiome.

So does the new skin innovation lead to more targeted innovations across the brand? “We already have products to choose from a rich portfolio in different markets, especially in India, and we will introduce these products with time and be very specific to the population,” says Sanzgiri.

Eating right

  • Our mouth is also home to good and bad bacteria. The oral microbiome plays a very important role in longevity by regulating the immune system and defending against environmental pathogens.
  • Prebiotics are dietary fibres which feed the good bacteria. Some of the dietary fibres are chicory root, onion, garlic, leeks, asparagus, etc
  • Probiotics include direct consumption of strains of good bacteria that help in improving gut microbiota. Some of the food includes yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, etc
  • Polyphenol-rich foods like berries, apple, dark chocolates, red onion feed on good bacteria
  • Fermented foods enhance the function of healthy bacteria and reduce the abundance of disease-causing bacteria. Some of the foods include sauerkraut, beet kvass, fermented aloe vera, etc.
  • Herbs and spices like cumin, cinnamon, licorice root, ginger, fennel, garlic, peppermint, cardamom, etc, help in promoting the actions of good bacteria

Dr Narendra Shetty, chief wellness officer, Kshemavana

Food for gut health

Luke Coutinho, holistic nutrition and lifestyle coach

  • Apple cider vinegar: Raw, unpasteurised and unfiltered apple cider vinegar is rich in prebiotics
  • Rice kanji: This has existed for years in our traditions. It’s the leftover cooked rice that is fermented overnight in water, and consumed the next day on an empty stomach. The rich fibre content prevents constipation and smoothens bowel movements
  • Ghee: It is one of the richest sources of butyrate, which is a short-chain fatty acid. The good bacteria in your gut use butyrate to promote the growth and repair of your digestive tract and decrease its permeability, which is damaged in cases like leaky gut, IBS and other conditions
  • Resistant starch: It is a type of starch that resists digestion in the small intestine, and as they move to the large intestine, they start to ferment. This serves as fuel and feed for the gut microbiome

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