Gut bacteria and your health. The microbiome. These strange bedfellows play a massive role in our health and yet we know so little about how to positively impact our microbiome using lifestyle and supplementation.
Luckily, it seems like weekly there are new studies published that help to fill in the major gaps in our understanding of this relationship. One thing that remains clear is that the types of bacteria acting as King of the Hill makes a big difference in your long term health. Firmicutes is a class of bacteria that is generally considered anti-diabetic, anti-obesity and an overall good guy.
Bacteroidetes, on the other hand, is on the other end of the scale, increased the risk of obesity and diabetes. It is far more common in Westernized societies while Firmicutes is found in higher levels in hunter-gatherer populations.
This is where the solidity in understanding what goes on in our microbiome stops, although it does seem like we are getting a better and better idea of how to change this bacteria in our gut to a more friendly neighbor. Diet, of course, plays a major role. Avoidance of antibiotics in all except the most necessary of conditions is a major factor in destroying your microbiome. Stress can change the character of your microbiome in a matter of minutes.
Other, less obvious factors can include certain amino acids. A recent article on glutamine demonstrated just how powerful a single amino acid could be at making positive changes in your microbiome. Another study found positive effects using cranberry extracts. And I’m sure there’s a bunch more I’ve missed.
But while you’re busy positively affecting your microbiome with cranberry-flavored glutamine powder, you have to remain vigilant to the environment in which we live. I have stated before that we live in a toxic soup that most of us blissfully swim through without being aware. Or maybe you are one of the enlightened ones. Maybe you stick to organics for the produce found on the Dirty Dozen list. Maybe you didn’t buy a mattress after July 2007 due to the increase in flame resistance standards and the chemicals required to withstand a Bunsen burner.
Maybe you even ditched your non-stick cookware and you would never dream of drinking out of a plastic water bottle.
If this describes you, then you’re going to feel vindicated in front of all of those friends who called you a hippie and a health freak. In this particular article, researchers looked at the effects of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) on the microbiome. In this mouse study, researchers exposed the animals to a specific POP called 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzofuran (TCDF). This compound is sometimes referred to as a dioxin (although it is better described as dioxin-ish) and we are typically exposed to it through the food we eat.
Most common exposures are through diet and, more specifically, animal products. This is because, like heavy metals, animals cannot get rid of persistent organic pollutants so they just keep getting concentrated up the food chain. This makes it very difficult to actually avoid exposure to POPs, although there are things you can do to reduce your exposure. More on that in a bit.
In the study, mice were given a high dose of TCDF along with their food for five days. The dose was 1,000 times the level that we are normally exposed to TCDF in our food supply, but the levels are in line with high dose occupational exposures. Here’s what they found:
- There was a shift in the gut microbiota Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes (not good).
- There changes in bile acid metabolism.
- The TCDF triggered inflammation and changed the way the liver was handling and storing both fat and glucose.
Granted, the levels of exposure were very high, but in a linked editorial, it was noted that further studies at dosages more in line with human exposures are showing the same types of negative changes in the gut microbiome.
So what can you do? While you cannot avoid exposure completely, here are some tips:
- Considering that POPs are retained in animal tissues, living a vegetarian, vegan or plant-based lifestyle will lower your risk.
- If you do consume animal products, it would make sense that organic sources of food would have lower levels of POPs.
- Lifestyle choices that promote growth of Firmicutes (as noted above) can counteract the chemical exposure-related changes.
For me, one of the scariest and most insightful things that I glean from studies like this is that so many of the negative consequences of our lifestyle choices are mediated through the gut bacteria. Just how much of a role do these bacteria play? In other words, it is well established that chemical compounds like POPs are associated with diabetes and obesity and certain cancers. But is it the actual chemical compounds themselves causing problems internally, or is it that these chemicals are altering the gut microbiome and THIS is how these chronic conditions are created?
I’m sure it is a combination of the two, but what does this say about the importance of maintaining a good, solid, healthy microbiome? Personally, I think it says everything.