“I contain multitudes,” wrote Walt Whitman in his rapturous love poem, “Song of Myself.” Something tells us Whitman wasn’t waxing poetic about his microbiome. Even so, we do contain multitudes. Our bodies are intertwined with countless others. Colonies of microbes live on and within our body and regulate untold numbers of functions. When those colonies are diverse and plentiful, we benefit. Tremendously.
How? And what magic does the microbiome work on menopause? We’ll unpack those questions in this post.
What is the Microbiome, and What Does It Do?
Many terms get thrown around these days: microflora, microbiota, microbiome. What do they all mean? Understanding these terms helps us understand the microbiome and its functions.
Microflora refers to microbes. We seem to be more comfortable with the idea of adding microflora to our bodies than adding microbes. But they’re the same thing. We might say something like, I take probiotics to add microflora during the menopause transition. There are trillions of microflora co-existing with our body. They are the simplest of life forms – most of them friendly and vital for our health.
Microbiota is often used interchangeably with microbiome. The two are not the same.
The microbiota is the “microbial organ.” All those trillions of microbes function like one organ, like cells working together in the liver, for instance. This microbial organ has innumerable functions, including producing countless chemical messengers and passing along far more genetic information to our body than what our own genes pass along.
Microbiome refers to the microbiota organ and all the important chemical messengers it produces and the genetic information it passes along.
Each of us has a microbiome ‘signature’ as unique to who we are as our fingerprints. Even so, there are commonalities among us all because we evolved alongside microbes and because of them.
Microflora exist across the entire body – mostly areas that have contact with the world, like the skin, gut, vagina, nose, and airways. Each area has a different composition of microflora.
Our focus here will be on the gut microbiome. We have more research on this microbiome and its functions across the body. Our own experiences tell us that a healthy microbiome is vital for wellbeing. As women, we know that when the vaginal microbiome is off, we’re prone to yeast infections or vaginal bacteriosis. This clinical term describes an imbalance of unfriendly (pathogenic) bacteria to friendly bacteria. Nurturing the gut microbiome can support that of the vagina. Everything’s connected.
There are three areas the gut microbiome influences during the menopause transition that are especially important: metabolism, immune function, and hormone production and regulation.
Microbes and Metabolism
Microbes are a vital component of healthy metabolism. They work tirelessly to extract nutrients from the foods we eat. The gut’s inhabitant microbes help make that happen. They’re bustling intermediaries that help us assimilate what we take in to become our own vital tissues. But their work of making nutrients available doesn’t stop with extracting. They also produce nutrients not found in the foods we consume.
Gut microbes affect peristalsis, too. Peristalsis is the rhythmic contraction and relaxation of the gut’s smooth muscles that usher food along the digestion and elimination process. They determine how quickly food passes from end to end.
Microbes influence how sugars and fats get metabolized, stored, and used by the body. They also produce hormones that regulate how quickly we burn the energy we consume, when we feel hungry, and when we feel full.
Microbes and the Immune System
Microflora in the gut prime, educate, and regulate the immune system. They interact with special immune cells along the inner lining of the intestinal wall. This lining is more commonly referred to as the gut barrier. The gut barrier keeps stuff that belongs in the gut safely in there. Tiny particles of undigested food leak into the bloodstream if the gut barrier is not intact, taking with those food particles some of the microbes. A leaky gut is a primary source of low-grade inflammation across the body. A healthy microbiome keeps the gut barrier intact, reduces that inflammation potential, and maintains healthy immune functions across the body.
Seventy percent of lymphocytes are located in the gut. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell involved in healthy immune function. The gut microbiome interacts with these cells to regulate the immune response. Gut microbes produce hundreds of active messengers and compounds, such as B vitamins, which are also central to immune activities across the body.
Microbes and Hormones
The microbiome is also critical for hormone (endocrine) activities across the body. Resident bacteria produce and regulate sex hormones, feel-good and stress hormones, and hormones involved in metabolism, such as insulin and appetite-regulating hormones.
Microbial influence on hormones is so extensive that it’s too much to cover in one post. In the next post, we dive into the interplay between microbes and sex hormones.
Healthy hormone production and regulation rely on
a gut microbiota that is plentiful and diverse.
There’s one more point we want to touch on. It’s a little-understood matter but one that means a lot as we transition through menopause and beyond. As women (and men) get older, certain types (species) of microbes replace other ones. Although research has produced some theories about why, we haven’t entirely unlocked the doors of this mystery yet.
What matters for us is this: caring for the microbiome is as much a part of a healthy lifestyle as eating well, moving often, and restoring. As strange as it may seem, wellbeing practices nourish the microbiome. We’ll leave you today with three insights:
- The body and microbiome are intertwined in a mutually enhancing way.
- The microbiome is an essential wellbeing partner that needs our care.
- Nourishing the microbiome fosters good health in a positive spiral.
Gateway to Vibrant Wellbeing
- What information about the microbiome is new to you? What sparks curiosity?
- Perhaps the idea of befriending and caring for your microbiome is new to you. If so, what sensations, images, words, or reflections come as you consider this partner in your wellbeing?