What does it take for someone to be healthy and fit? A healthy lifestyle, good food and exercise, you would say. You are right to a large extent, but what if someone told you that the bacteria you harbour in your body also determine how fit you are? Which is why, the next time you are looking for a personalised diet and fitness plan, take a stool test first. Recent research indicates that how we look and feel heavily depends on trillions of foreign organisms residing within our bodies.
Studies, in fact, reveal that gut bacteria play a much more important role than mere digestion. From metabolism and immunity to obesity and diabetes, how healthy we are depends to a large extent on these bacteria found in our intestines.
That gut bacteria can be beneficial is a known fact. We have several foods like yogurt offering the probiotic advantage, and a large industry peddling probiotic foods. “The human body and the sea of bacteria lie in symbiosis, helping each other. The bacteria benefit from our body and the body benefits from the bacteria. Gut bacteria have many functions—metabolic, detoxification, synthesis of certain vitamins, etc,” explains Govind Makharia, professor, department of gastroenterology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi.
The new elixir?
There is also talk of how gut bacteria might one day be key to explaining weight control. Most of us swear by the age-old norm of ‘more calories, more weight’. What most of us don’t know is that our gut microbes have a big say in how much energy we absorb and, ultimately, how much weight we gain.
This was shown recently by researchers in the US. In their study, they transplanted gut bacteria from obese mice into lean ones. This caused the lean mice to gain fat cells rapidly, as per a report published on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a division of the US National Library of Medicine.
“Researchers hypothesise that this ‘obese microbiota’ may enhance signals that trigger the amount of energy we harvest from food. This, in turn, increases the amount of calories absorbed and leads to weight gain,” the study said. These experiments have still not reached trials, but the possibilities of their practical applications are endless.
Millions of people across the globe suffer from obesity, as well as unexpected weight loss. Gut microbes and procedures like fecal transplants could be the key to solving these medical problems. “Data on fecal microbial transplantation in various diseases is still emerging. While some reports suggest that this therapy is efficacious, others have not found it to be effective. Now, poop pills (capsules that contain stool from a healthy donor) are also being developed,” says Makharia of AIIMS.
Poop pills might not have many takers out there, but these tiny capsules might help you lose weight. The pills work on the same principle as fecal microbial transplants. The only difference being that you don’t have to undergo a possibly painful medical procedure. Instead, you just pop a pill that contains, ahem, a small amount of human poop, which contains healthy, lean microbes from a donor.
However, there are no solid results in humans yet. A recent report says, “Even if fecal transplants were to help alter the course of obesity for some people, such treatments would not obviate the need for a broader set of changes.” That includes diet, lifestyle and even medication.
However, researchers in Tel Aviv, Israel, already have some solutions. They have devised an algorithm based on a person’s gut flora to analyse and predict how the human body reacts to different foods. The algorithm is interesting for sure, but what makes it possible in the first place are the millions of gut microbes present in the body.
Led by Eran Segal and Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, the Personalized Nutrition Project is a large-scale initiative that takes a scientific approach to nutritional problems. It allows a registered user to record his/her daily activities and food intake. He/she has a unique database with thousands of food items listed along with their full nutritional values. Once users reach an advanced stage in the study, they receive a detailed analysis of their gut microbe composition along with information about the positive and negative role each microbe plays in the gut. Using a personalised diet planner, users can then enter their food preferences and construct personal diets based on various nutritional requirements, while also keeping track of their dietary preferences and constraints.
Studies also say gut microbes could be the key to treating autoimmune diseases, as well as improving mental behaviour. Recently, researchers in the US conducted a study where a group of 18 children with autism and gastrointestinal problems were put on a 10-week treatment of fecal microbial transplants. Astonishingly, the children experienced 20-25% improvement in autism behaviour, including improved social skills and sleeping patterns, and 80% reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms. The findings of this study were published in the journal Microbiome.
All not good
For all the benefits, one thing that should be remembered is that this is a double-edged sword. When there is less of good gut bacteria and more of bad bacteria, the digestive system goes for a toss, leading to problems like food sensitivity, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, constipation, etc. If that’s not serious enough, medical research suggests that unhappy bacteria in your tummy can not only lead to inflammatory problems, but ultimately result in more grievous metabolic diseases and neurological conditions.
Food for bacteria
Just like us, our gut microbes, too, have food preferences. There are certain food items that keep them ‘happy’ and others that send them in a real tizzy. So what should you eat to keep the gut flora in your body in a positive state? Veggies. Yes, fibre and green vegetables are essential for good gut bacteria. A surprise contender is cheese, a food we usually associate with unwanted fat. Researchers say cottage cheese and other soft fermented cheeses are a rich source of probiotics. There’s the option of probiotic supplements as well.
Yogurt and other foods that contain fermented elements are also good for the gut. So order that miso soup and gorge on that kimchi. A gut renovation could also mean a renovation of your complete body.
Customise your gut
Unlike a lot of factors in our body that remain constant, gut microbes can be changed or manipulated. “Fecal microbial transplantation has emerged as a very interesting therapy for many conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and Clostridium difficile infection (a bacterium that causes diarrhea).
In fecal microbial therapy, stool samples are collected from one of the patient’s relatives or another stool donor. That stool sample is then transplanted in the large intestine of the patient through colonoscopy. The population of the gut bacteria in the large intestine of the patient is thereby replaced by healthy bacteria present in the stool of the donor,” says Govind Makharia of AIIMS, adding
that many centres in India, including AIIMS, are conducting research in this field.
Nothing trivial about this
- There are around 100 trillion microbes in the gut—that’s 10 times more cells than in the entire human body
- Gut bacteria make up about two pounds of body weight
- Genes and birthplace affect the structure of gut microbiome
- Emotions, stress, etc, also affect gut flora
- The heavily-criticised appendix, thought to be a vestigial structure, gets credit for nothing else but pain. Now, scientists have deduced that it’s actually a Good Samaritan, acting as a safehouse for good gut bacteria.