I have been reading and reading this week. Endless journals and reports about the science of the microbiome, and how learning to manage your microbes can possibly transform your health problems – once and for all. Hopefully you have read my last article on the topic, and if not, please click here.
There has been a fair amount of research in the last 7 years or so, but the more I read, the more confusing it becomes, and there are very few definitive conclusions. It is fairly clear that we are on the threshold of what may be one of the most important discoveries for humanity since we found out the earth was round.
The Garden of Your Gut
The gut is now said to hold your health in its hands (so to speak). And the key to wellbeing, to mental health, to youth and vitality and most other happy things apparently lies in the quality and diversity of your gut garden.
I love the idea of having a garden in my gut. A garden that's equally as beautiful as my own real garden, and filled with different varieties of soil and a multitude of happy blossoming plants. They say it's all about terrain. If you have a barren, rocky garden, you are clearly in trouble, and must start planting gut flowers immediately. It's all about a different sort of diversity – microbe diversity. I can see my own gut garden so clearly in my head.
But then the confusion seeps in. I know my gut garden needs regular attention to keep it happy. Fibre and pre-biotics as fertiliser, probiotics as seeds. But which one for what?
I also know that an overload of processed foods, chemicals, pesticides or antibiotics can wipe it out entirely, along with the thousands of microbes that happily flourish there. It sounds complicated – and tricky. Stressful actually.
What are the facts? Where have all these microbes come from? Where exactly do these microbes hang out? And most importantly, what are they doing? Science will eventually track down the answers, but in the meantime, this is the best I can come up with. Partial answers are better than none I hope.
Bacteria and the various ages of man
The Baby Years – where it all starts
The foundations of a healthy microbiome start at birth and the fundamentals are laid down during the first two years. Each baby that is born vaginally (very American, but can't think how else to put it!) receives its full microbe quota from its mother via her birth canal. A caesarian section child's microbes will be very different, however. It picks them up from its mother's skin instead, or from the skin of the first few people it encounters - whether that's the father, brothers and sisters and relatives, the doctor or the midwife. And those external microbes are not at all the same.
Be very careful here, and aware, because this microbiota establishes your child's (or grandchild's) long term health and immunity. Don't hand your newborn to your grumpy, depressive uncle, or to an unknown medic to hold for a minute or two – the consequences could be long lasting! The latest C-section essential is the poo lolly top-up – effectively a faecal implant from the mother to her baby to suck, to pick up those vital microbes. Turn your nose up if you want, but consider it seriously if you value your child's health.
We know that breast milk is nature's perfect food for the newborn child. Full of vitamins, minerals and anti-bodies, it has now been found to be full of microbes too, which efficiently populate the baby's gut. Breast milk contains both pre and pro-biotics that feed the microbes and enable them to strengthen the infant immune system and build defences against potential germ invaders.
And as your baby grows, it picks up additional microbes from the world outside. From the handfuls of soil it plays with in the garden, the animals it pets, the food it eats and the other children it encounters. Don't scrub and wash everything all the time, you could be setting back his or her health prospects long term. Don't worry too much about the dirt, only the 'right' microbes will survive to join the initial groups: microbes that serve the child, and microbes that find the child serves them. The selection process works both ways.
What microbes are present?
When you are a baby, the majority of your bacteria are the Bifidobacteria, which coat the gut preventing the attachment of any pathogens.
Adult gut health:
Most of the inhabitants of our gut are bacteria, (rather than fungi, yeast or viruses) and the majority of those bacteria are Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. There are a few others that crop up fairly frequently, particularly Proteobacteria, Actinobacteria, Fusobacteria, Tenericutes, Cyanobacteria, Spirochaetes, Verrucomicrobia and Lentisphaerae. Watch out for your levels of Proteobacteria because an increase seems to be an indicator of an upset of microbial balance and be an advance indicator of the possibility of disease.
Old age guts:
After the age of 65, our gut diversity reduces. This may be due to a decline in immune system strength, but also to changes in eating habits, overuse of medical prescriptions and digestive track issues including constipation. Bifidobacteria levels decline and Proteobacteria levels increase. There is a clear link between frailty in elderly people and their changing gut bacteria, suggesting that supplementation could be essential for your older age.
Weight gain and bacteria
The ones that are probably most interesting to most of us are the 'weight' bacteria - Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes. They usually make up the majority of our gut inhabitants. They regulate how much fat you absorb and where you store it. Research into overweight mice has shown that they have considerably higher levels of Firmicutes and lower levels of Bacteroidetes. Skinny mice have the opposite results. And studies that have transferred faeces from overweight mice into the intestinal tracts of the skinny mice found that the bacteria overrode the natural tendency of the skinny mice, so that they became overweight as a result. So if you want to be skinny, adjust your ratio and have more Bacteroidetes and fewer Firmicutes.
Huge red flag here: Experiments have been done giving patients with serious gut issues faecal implants from people with healthy guts to see if their symptoms would improve. Excitingly they did... but what they hadn't expected was that other issues would transfer too. Participants inherited mental health problems and obesity issues. You can now buy faecal pills over the internet – but double check who is supplying the contents – and what they might be giving you as possibly unwelcome extras?
How to check your microbe levels?
Quick check on my own microbes
Most of the research done to date has been carried out on faecal samples, and the microbes of the colon. Purely because they are easier to access than trickier inner areas. So there is still a lot that remains unknown and a lot of questions still to answer. The American Gut project is a large research study that is taking poo samples from thousands of people to compare their gut microbes and learn as much as possible. I sent off a sample and got two other friends to do the same so that we can compare and contrast the results.
The report didn͛t really explain much. There weren't huge differences between our samples. We had more or less the same groups of microbes, just a variation in the percentages we each have of them. And compared to an average general population sample - people of similar sex, age, diet, weight – there was very little variety.
Populations of different countries seem to have different microbe patterns though, presumably because they eat different foods grown in different soil. An African diet sample is very different to a standard Western diet sample.
Anyway, all that reading left me nearly as confused as I was when I started. The jury seems to be out on most of the research so far. Time, and further tests, will presumably tell us all more. It's just a question of patience, and then hopefully, faecal science will become a standard approach for the majority of health issues.
Am I looking forward to that? Not that convinced!
Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, who founded one of the UK's largest breast cancer charities, The Haven, twenty years ago. With Reboot Health, Sara aims to bring the best preventative and curative health solutions ranging from nutrition, alternative therapies, fitness and conventional medicine.
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