You can image my delight when I opened the New York Times magazine section this week and saw on the cover an article entitled Some of my Best Friends are Germs — written by none other than Michael Pollan. I’m kind of jealous — his articles get a lot more readership than mine…
But I guess I should not be surprised that Micheal Pollan would be interested in American Gut and the Human Food Project and has written about his participation in it. I participated too, but have not received my results yet. Pollan did a lot of research about the emerging studies in the area of germs — now known as our microbiome.
We are Superorganisms
We house microbes in every part of our body — intestines, skin, mouth to the tune of 100 trillion. That means that there are more bacterial cells in and on our bodies than there are cells that make up our body and organs.
We are walking puddles teaming with microbes. Pollan quotes Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford,
we would do well to begin regarding the human body as an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.
Interestingly, Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride has been talking about the gut bacteria for years and addressing imbalances in their diversity in her GAPS diet.
The Second Genome
The emerging research on the microbiota (all the microbes in a community) and the microbiome ( their collective genes) is as exciting as the Human Genome Project that promised cures for diseases based on identifying the genes associated with that disease.
Sadly, that has not happened and scientists working on this second genome are not as quick to make promises.
However, scientists are now finding that imbalances in gut bacteria do, in fact, suggest an association with health conditions.
Pollan interviewed many researchers from various universities, and the consensus is that the more diversity one has, the better. Emerging patterns suggest that diversity in the Western, industrialized gut is less than that of Africa or South America — especially that of indigenous Indian populations.
Rural populations house greater diversity and also have different microbes in leading populations. Questions arise as to why there is less diversity and different players.
The answers are based on what is now common knowledge and previous studies — such as — more antibiotic use in the West, the poor diet in the West, the sterile diet in the West.
Research is showing that different strains like different foods. For instance, firmicutes like amino acids, so a diet high in protein would encourage growth of this strain. Bacteroides like carbohydrates so a diet high in carbs would encourage this one. Prevotella like fiber so a diet high in fiber would encourage these.
The Interior Ecosystem
We now have ecologists studying the ecosystem of our gut. We know that a baby is born without any bacteria and the very first introduction is while traveling through the birth canal. There, the baby picks up bacteria from the mother. If the baby is born via c-section, they will pick up bacteria from caregivers, but it may not be as good.
The second exposure of the infant is through the first sip of breast milk. The skin of the nipple and the milk itself is teeming with bacteria.
By age 3 the baby’s microbiome seems to stabilize, with most of the niches occupied. However, changes can and do occur with changes in diet or an antibiotic assault. These types of changes can cause some bacteria to flourish and some to recede.
This is another new term used by some of the scientists in the field to describe what the bacteria do for us. As noted in a previous post about beneficial bacteria, they perform many essential services:
- Microbial communities resist invasion by taking up space in the various niches and creating a space that is unwelcoming to foreign invaders.
- The microbiota manufacture neurotransmitters, enzymes, vitamins, amino acids and short chain fatty acids — all essential to good physical and mental health.
- These bacteria produce signaling compounds that regulate appetite, satiety and digestion. As noted above, some are associated with obesity.
- The microbiota keep the immune system at an even keel — able to respond to invaders, and also to identify those others (resident bacteria) that are mutually beneficial to the host. A problem here could be at the core of autoimmunity.
The Microbiota Do The Job Better
One theory to explain why all these important ecosystem services have been farmed out to bacteria is because they can evolve ever so quickly. In many strains, there is a new generation in 20 minutes — a generation that can adapt to a new environment. These bacteria can trade genes and pieces of DNA — to fight off a new invader or a toxic food particle. With this rate of evolution, we can survive the constant threats and challenges of the ever changing environment.
According to Joel Kimmons, a nutrition scientist and epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta,
The bacteria in your gut are continually reading the environment and responding… They’re a microbial mirror of the changing world. And because they can evolve so quickly, they help our bodies respond to changes in our environment.
In the West, we are in the process of destroying our collective microbiome due to lifestyle, poor food quality with toxic additives, drugs, and medications.
Studies of the Microbiome of Isolated Cultures
María Gloria Dominguez-Bello, a microbiologist at New York University, is studying the gut microbiome of hunter gatherers in the Amazon in order to determine what a clean microbiome would look like.
We want to see how the human microbiota looks before antibiotics, before processed food, before modern birth… These samples are really gold.
She is finding that these samples have much great biodiveristy and higher levels of prevotella (these like fiber) bacteria than in the West. Interestingly, these Amerindians have much lower rates of allergies, asthma, atopic disease and chronic diseases.
No surprise there.
Most Scientists Agree Western Diet Alters Gut Microbiome
Since scientists are reluctant to make statements that are not backed up by tons of studies, they hold back. But Pollan found that most agree that the Western diet is changing the gut microbiome in negative ways due to:
- Ingesting antimicrobials with meals
- Sterilized foods
- Processed foods with toxic additives that damage the gut lining mucosa, such as lecithin, Datem, CMC and polysorbate 80 — which may lead to inflammation and leaky gut.
- Lack of fiber
- Inflammation as a common denominator for chronic disease — inflammation which begins in the gut
How To Nurture Your Microbiome
Pollan asked the scientists how to nurture your microbiome and none wanted to make recommendations for the average person. They are cautious about making promises and reluctant to get into the probiotic and prebiotic marketing arena.
Understandable. There is a lot of money to be made in probiotic supplements and many just don’t work.
Sadly, all this research will probably open the doors for the pharmaceutical companies to step in and fund research and patent your very microbiome for big bucks.
Pollan asked instead about how they have changed their lifestyle in light of all their research. This is what they said:
- Slower to use antibiotics
- Relaxing hygiene regiments in the home
- Encouraging play in the dirt and with animals
- Eliminating processed foods
- Use prebiotics — foods likely to encourage the growth of good bacteria
- Adding fermented foods to their diet
- Increasing the diversity of plants foods in the diet (for fiber)
Interestingly, he quoted a gastroenterologist at the University of Pittsburgh — Dr. Stephen O’Keefe,
The big problem with the Western diet… is that it doesn’t feed the gut, only the upper G I. All the food has been processed to be readily absorbed, leaving nothing for the lower G I. But it turns out that one of the keys to health is fermentation in the large intestine.
Now that is something that is exactly the opposite of the SCD or GAPS diet — where we try to limit any fermentation in the large intestine and so starve out the bacteria. In these diets, it is very important to supplement with probiotic foods that have the good bacteria.
Pollan goes on to say,
And the key to feeding the fermentation in the large intestine is giving it lots of plants with their various types of fiber, including resistant starch (found in bananas, oats, beans); soluble fiber (in onions and other root vegetables, nuts); and insoluble fiber (in whole grains, especially bran, and avocados).
However, some people do much better without all that fiber — especially from grains. I hope this new research will explain this and why many people with damaged guts do so well on the SCD and GAPS diets.
Feed Your Microbiome
We know how to feed our microbiome already — real food eaters have been saying this for years. Dr. Jeffrey Leach at American Gut has several suggestions for us based on his own researach. We know how harmful antibiotics and the additives in food are. But it is much more than just trying to feed the microbiome and encourage growth of good bacteria.
I am anxious for that day. What about you? What do you think of all this new research? Leave a comment and let me know!