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Microbiome and Your Health

Researcher Shahid Umar.

April 01, 2020

You may have heard the term microbiome in the news recently, but what does it actually mean? And how does it affect your health and cancer risk?

“Our bodies are inhabited with trillions of microbes. These are bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea, to name a few. The name ‘microbiome’ is given to all the genes that are present within the cells of these microorganisms,” said Shahid Umar, PhD, professor and vice-chair of Research in the Department of Surgery at the University of Kansas Medical Center and a gastrointestinal researcher at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

According to KU Cancer Center researchers, the microbiome is important, especially in relation to colon cancer. Dr. Umar’s research focuses on the relationship between colon cancer and the significance of the microbiome. Ninety-percent of these bacteria can be found in our gut. They digest the food we eat, absorb nutrients, produce vitamins that our bodies can’t produce on their own and calibrate the immune system. In addition, they also protect us from environmental pathogens. Recent studies have begun to illuminate the gut bacteria differences between individuals with and without colon cancer. Those with colon cancer have been found to have modified bacterial profiles. Variation in gut microflora among individuals and their capacity to produce beneficial metabolites might also account for variable results seen in many chemoprevention studies.

Because every person’s bacteria are different, treatments involving the gut and microbiome must be very specific to the patient. However, there are things everyone can do to improve their gut and overall health and reduce their cancer risk.

“Plants and fresh, leafy vegetables are some of the best sources of antioxidants and fiber content, which will then increase the level of good bacteria versus bad bacteria. This will help your body boost its own defense system.” Dr. Shahid Umar

Eat a Plant-Based Diet

According to Dr. Umar, the number one thing we can do to reduce risk is improve our diet. “Plants and fresh, leafy vegetables are some of the best sources of antioxidants and fiber content, which will then increase the level of good bacteria versus bad bacteria,” Dr. Umar said. “This will help your body boost its own defense system.”


Exercise Regularly

A regular exercise regimen has been proven to reduce your cancer risk and your overall health, but this doesn’t mean you have to start an intense routine. The American Cancer Society recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (or a combination of these) each week. You can even achieve the recommended amount of exercise by walking for 30 minutes, five days a week.


Get Adequate Sleep

Most people need around eight hours of quality sleep to function, but that number varies from person to person. While an occasional night of poor sleep won’t affect your health, long-term lack of sleep may be harmful. Sleep boosts immunity and helps you maintain a healthy weight, both of which affect your gut and overall health.
While maintaining good gut health may seem complicated, these simple actions can make a big difference.

“What we have to do is give up our sedentary lifestyle, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, avoid high-fat foods and consult your primary care provider about the use of probiotics. We have to start before it’s too late,” Dr. Umar said. “If you keep your bacteria healthy, trust me, they will be dancing in your gut.”

Learn more about the microbiome and Dr. Umar’s work on KU Cancer Center’s Facebook Live Series #BenchToBedside.

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