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Health and the Human Microbiome

A Primer for Nurses

McElroy, Katie Gresia PhD, RN; Chung, Seon-Yoon PhD, RN; Regan, Mary PhD, RN

AJN The American Journal of Nursing: July 2017 - Volume 117 - Issue 7 - p 24–30
doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000520917.73358.99
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The profound impact of the human microbiome on health makes it imperative that nurses understand the basic structures and functions of the various microbial communities. In studying the human microbiome, advances in DNA and RNA sequencing technology offer benefits over traditional culture-based methods. Such technology has permitted more thorough investigations of microbial communities, particularly those of the gastrointestinal (GI) and female reproductive tracts. Although individual variations exist, each site exhibits distinct compositions. The diverse GI microbiota aid in digestion, mood regulation, and vitamin synthesis. While many factors affect the composition and functions of the GI microbiota, diet likely exerts the strongest influence. Vaginal microbiota tend to be less diverse, and mainly serve to protect women from infection. The composition of the vaginal microbiota is influenced by sexual activity, hygienic practices, medications, smoking, and other factors. Our increasing knowledge about the structures and functions of the GI and vaginal microbiota allows nurses to provide targeted, evidence-based education and care for various populations.

This article provides an overview of the current state of knowledge about the human microbiome–with a focus on the microbiota in the GI tract and the vagina, the two most commonly studied body sites–and discusses implications for nursing practice.

Katie Gresia McElroy is an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Health at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, Baltimore, where Mary Regan is an associate professor in the Department of Organizational Systems and Adult Health. Seon-Yoon Chung is an assistant professor at Illinois State University Mennonite College of Nursing, Normal. This article was supported in part by unrestricted educational grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as follows: the National Institute for Nursing Research, grant number R01NR014826; and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, grant number 1F31HD080360. The content is solely that of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH. Contact author: Katie Gresia McElroy, mcelroy@son.umaryland.edu. The authors and planners have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

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