The human microbiome is a collection of organisms living on the skin and in our GI and reproductive tracts. Nurses know these “germs” are there, and traditionally we have regarded them as potentially dangerous. We try to eliminate as many as possible when we disinfect skin before injections, surgery, or other procedures. Yet, as noted by the authors of a continuing education (CE) feature in the July issue of AJN, “Health and the Human Microbiome: A Primer for Nurses,” new research increasingly demonstrates that these microbes affect our health in significant and often positive ways.
” . . . once unequivocally regarded as dangerous invaders, [microbes] often serve us as integral companions, providing critical functions in fundamental human processes.”
In this article, Katie Gresia McElroy and colleagues share many thought-provoking research findings about the human microbiome that are relevant to nursing. Some examples:
- Because of the wide variation in “microbial community profiles” both person-to-person and at different body sites, probiotic products may not contain the best microbes for a particular person. This suggests that brand-to-brand differences in probiotic composition may determine how effective (or not) these products are in research studies or in individual use.
- “Through early exposure to nonindigenous microbes, pattern receptors in or on [the GI tract] lining learn to differentiate between commensal and pathogenic bacteria.” In other words, exposure to organisms new to an infant’s or child’s microbiome may affect how the body responds over time (“friend or foe?”) to different species of bacteria.
- Vaginal microbiota can be affected by life changes (menarche, pregnancy, menopause), as well as by douching, the use of vaginal lubricants, and sexual activity. An imbalance in vaginal microbiota can result in vaginal infection and an increased risk of sexually-transmitted infection, including HIV, as well as of miscarriage, preterm birth, postpartum infection, and infertility.
Research about the human microbiome and how it affects our health offers some tantalizing information, but there is much more to be learned.