What do you call them? Gut microbiota? Gut flora? Gut bugs?
Whatever you call them, how much do you really know about them?
Gut microbiota is the first thing I teach my clients about, as they (the bugs, not my clients), really are THE foundation of your health. They influence the state of your immune system, your memory, your moods and so much more. The good bacteria in your digestive system affects your body’s vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, digestion, vitamin production, immune response, and ability to eliminate toxins, not to mention your overall mental health. (It is sometimes called your body’s second brain).
When I started learning about the gut flora (more than 10 years ago now) no one was really talking about it! Thank goodness that changed, and today there are heaps of studies proving the immense importance of these little guys.
Today there are heaps of books about gut health, some good, some not, so when I find a book that is informative/scientifically based and well written I want to tell you about it.
“The Good Gut, your weight, your mood and your long term health” is written by Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine and his wife Erica Sonnenburg, PhD, a senior research scientist (also at Stanford) who studies the role of diet on the human intestinal microbiota.
According to the authors, several factors including dietary changes, the over-use of antibiotics, and over-sterilization have wreaked havoc on our guts and have contributed to the loss of gut microbiota–trillions of organisms representing thousands of species to which our bodies play host. They argue that this, in turn, has made us more vulnerable to developing everything from food allergies to autism, cancer to depression.
After a little scientific research (ahem Dr. Google ahem) I came across this interview both authors gave to Elisa Zied (dietician).
The following content first appeared on her website:
What compelled you to do research on the gut microbiota?
We started working on the microbiota back in 2003 when there were very few people in the field and definitely no realization of how important our gut bacteria were to so many aspects of our health. We were drawn to the field because it seemed that there were so many interesting questions to address relating to human biology. What are these trillions of bacteria doing in the gut? How do they respond to changes in diet? Are they doing more than helping us digest food? What happens when they encounter a pathogenic bacteria? It wasn’t until the lab we were in at the time (Dr. Gordon at Washington University) discovered that the microbiota was not only contributing to but could also cause weight gain that all of us in the lab realized that we were on to something big and that these microbes were doing so much more than we had imagined!
In layman’s terms, what does the term “microbiota” mean? And why is it so important to have enough/the right types of gut microbiota/bacteria in the body?
The microbiota is the collection of bacteria that live on or in the human body. Usually, when people refer to the microbiota they are talking about the bacteria in the gut since the gut is where most of our associated bacteria live. People also refer to the microbiota as the microbiome, but scientists usually use microbiome to refer to the collective genome of the bacteria we house.
What research has shown over the past decade is how the bacteria in our gut are wired into virtually all aspects of our health. They are setting the dial on our immune system, determining the strength and pace of our immune responses to things like viruses, they are connected to our metabolism, helping our body decide whether to burn or store extra calories, and more recently they have been linked with our body’s central nervous system, potentially influencing our moods and behaviors. In so many ways these bacteria are redefining the way biomedical researchers view the human body, no longer as a single entity but as a composite organism or a walking ecosystem made up of human cells and bacterial cells.
What has happened to gut bacteria/the microbiota in the human body over the last 100 years and why such a change?
If we use modern day traditional populations such as modern day hunter-gatherers or people living an early agrarian lifestyle as a proxy for what our microbiota was probably like before agriculture or before the mass production of processed foods, we see that their microbiota is very different from people in industrialized countries. It appears that our microbiota in the West has deteriorated. We have many fewer species or types of bacteria in our gut than these traditional peoples. There are probably many factors contributing to this decline but we think that diet is the major factor. Our gut bacteria thrive on dietary fiber and the consumption of dietary fiber in the West is abysmal compared to what traditional people groups consume. By not eating enough dietary fiber we are essentially starving our microbial self. You can think of your microbiota as an internal garden and dietary fiber as the fertilizer for that garden. Add lots of fertilizer and you will get a diverse lush garden. Starve your garden of nutrients and it will start to resemble a barren landscape with weed patches.
What is the link between gut microbiota and the incidence/maintenance of obesity?
The link between the microbiota and obesity is probably the one with the most solid scientific evidence behind it. If you give mice a microbiota from an obese individual, those mice will gain weight even if you don’t change their diet. That discovery, I think, even took the scientific community by surprise and has profound implications for how important it is to take care of our microbiota. The good news is that unlike our human genome, which is set at birth, our microbiome is in many ways under our control. Change your diet and the bacterial community in your gut will change.
What is the relationship between gut microbiota and chronic diseases/diet-related diseases?
I think one of the more important discoveries made in the past decade is how important our gut microbiota is to the functioning of our immune system. The bacteria in the gut are setting the dial on our immune system, tuning it towards either a pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory state. We know that many of the modern chronic diseases that are rising so rapidly in the west–obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, and many autoimmune diseases–are at their core diseases of excessive inflammation. There have been several studies showing that sufferers of these diseases have a disrupted microbiota. While we still don’t know whether a disrupted microbiota can cause or contribute to all of these diseases (with the exception of a causal relationship being established in the case of obesity), we know that there is a connection between these diseases and the microbiota. So the question is: what do we do while we wait for science to iron out the details of these connections? I think it is prudent at this point to assume that improving the state of one’s microbiota will be beneficial to the maintenance of one’s health!
Can you suggest some dietary strategies families can use to improve the amount/types of gut bacteria they have and to beneficially change the microbiota?
You want your diet to be one that nurtures your gut bacteria towards a community that supports health rather than destroys it. Right now the best way we know how to do this is by eating lots of fibre and specifically fibre rich plants such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains. The more diverse collection of plants you eat the more diverse community of bacteria your gut can support.
Any other lifestyle behaviors people can adopt/increase that may positively impact the amount/types of gut bacteria to improve health or prevent obesity/disease?
– Include fermented foods like yogurt, kimchee, sauerkraut, kefir, miso in your diet.
– Don’t go overboard when it comes to sanitizing.
– Get rid of all your antibacterial soaps and cleaners. There is no evidence that they prevent disease any more than regular soap and they may reduce your exposure to “good” bacteria and contribute to resistant bacteria.
– Pets are a wonderful way to expose yourself to more bacteria, so if you’re thinking of getting a pet here is another reason to do it.
– Remember that you are over half bacterial, so each meal should include food for both your human self and your microbes.