Eating for One, Feeding Trillions

What is this gut bacteria stuff really all about?

Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a great weekend. I know I’m significantly happier now that midterms are over and I’m home for spring break 🙂

Last week I had the opportunity to attend my college’s annual nutrition lecture, and this year the topic was gut bacteria. The nutrition department brought in Dr. Toddy Gray, a public health scientist from the state’s department of health who specialized in microbial genetics. Currently he’s been doing research on gut bacteria and just how important they are even though we might not think about it.

Early in life we begin developing our microflora, and it begins at the moment you’re born. Whether you were delivered naturally or via C-section, your microflora resembles your mother’s. Good bacteria coexist with us; they live on our skin, in our guts, along the birth canal, and they are a very distinct part of what keeps us healthy. Depending on how you were delivered, your initial gut biome will look similar to your mother’s birth canal or skin. By about three years-old you’ve developed a stabilized microbiome, and it’s absolutely vital to help your bacteria flourish.

Blog Post 10To nourish the bacteria you’ve got chilling out, Dr. Gray brought up three key elements. Some of you may recognize these terms because they’re talked about a lot in everyday life. Prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics.

So, what are they and, more importantly, what do they do?

Prebiotics are foods that help create a good environment for the bacteria to “set up shop”. This is your non-digestible fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. This is why eating your fruits and vegetables is so important! They provide a good place for the good bacteria to take up residence and keep your gut healthy. Probiotics are the actual bacteria, the live cultures that help promote a healthy gut. You can get these bacteria from eating things like yogurt and fermented foods. When you look at the ingredients on the food label you’ll often seen these two bacteria: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. While Dr. Gray didn’t delve too much into these bacterial strains, he did introduce a new concept that I had never heard of before: synbiotics.

Antibiotics, as you may or may not know, not only wipe out the nasty bacteria that cause infections, but they also wipe out the good bacteria in your body. Most times doctors suggest eating yogurt and other foods that contain probiotics to offset this. While the intention is good, Dr. Gray told us that just having probiotics alone may do nothing to help the health of your gut when you take antibiotics, or at any other time for that matter. Probiotics, he mentioned, are competitive and the bacteria can wipe each other out if there isn’t enough of a good environment for them to “set up shop” in. Synbiotics are the answer to this issue. They are food combinations that incorporate both prebiotics and probiotics to ensure your gut bacteria are happy and healthy. The combined effects of these would be greater, but not necessarily additive. Regardless of whether or not you are on an antibiotic this is important to keep your digestive tract healthy, but pay special attention to it if you are on an antibiotic.

Blog Post 10 aSo we’ve all heard antibiotics can really impact your gut bacteria, but some interesting studies Dr. Gray referenced really brought to light some of the links between antibiotic use and weight gain. Our microbiomes are responsible for how the nutrients are absorbed from our foods, and there is a direct link between their health and obesity. From what I understood, taking antibiotics can really influence weight gain. In the study he referred to, it explained that antibiotics early in life can increase the chances of developing obesity later on. And in a study done with rats, results showed that low-dose antibiotics combined with a high fat diet exacerbated gains in body fat over a period of time. To understand just how significant this is, the study continued by transferring the microbiome of the rats with the antibiotic exposure to those without, and the phenotypes of those rats changed significantly even though they did not have the antibiotic directly. It was the microflora influencing the weight gain in these antibiotic-free rats.

Another big development was the preliminary research done on artificial sweeteners. Dr. Gray explained that these artificial sweeteners actually impair the cellular uptake of glucose which will alter and remodel the microbiome. This was a human study, and there appeared to be some differences in their responsiveness regarding saccharin. But, it’s important to note how sensitive your microbiome is to what you ingest, and even what you’re around. From your gut bacteria, an analyst can even tell you have a pet. It’s constantly changing. And, the idea of a gut-brain connection is true. The vagus nerve connects your brain with the more than 100 million neurons in the gut, and even more: it’s a two-way street. Your gut and brain communicate, and half the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are made in the gut.

Blog Post 10bThe importance of gut health on your overall health is staggeringly important, and the research is just preliminary. But it’s a growing topic, and I think as time goes on it’s safe to say that health professionals will realize the importance of that impact. Perhaps, Dr. Gray suggested, in the future we will have routine gut checks to accompany our health check-ups. Wouldn’t that be something?

Question of the week: what do you think about all this new research into gut bacteria?

Photo Credit: Image 1 (The Guardian); Image 2 (Organic Arabic Gum); Image 3 (Raising My Healthy Eater)

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