Should we consider the microbiome as another organ?

In this article we hear from two UK-based researchers whose work focuses on obesity and metabolism: Dr Petra Hanson and Dr Thomas M. Barber. They discuss the microbiome, the hype behind probiotics, and the future direction of research.

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Are probiotics as good for us as some claim? Евгения Матвеец / Getty Images

Dr Hanson and Dr Barber work at Warwick Medical School and University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire National Health Service (NHS) Trust. They are both members of the Warwick Obesity Network.

Browsing the shelves of many stores these days reveals a growing consumer craze for probiotics that has gone far beyond yogurt. Probiotics are in dozens of supplements. They infuse shampoo, toothpaste, skin care products, and snacks for humans and pets. They are even part of some anti-allergic mattresses.

The probiotic buzz stems from growing scientific attention and recognition of the importance of our gut microbiome – the collection of bacteria that lives in our large intestines.

Researchers examine the gut microbiome for its potential to benefit countless aspects of physical and mental health. This potential is creating excitement about the prospect of improving our health – and eventually stemming the obesity epidemic – by improving our gut bacteria.

These are the possibilities that researchers at the University of Warwick have concluded that the medical community should view the gut microbiome almost as an organ in its own right.

As with other organs, the gut microbiome has the ability to make us sick if we don’t feed it properly. Conversely, it holds the power to promote health and well-being if we take care of it properly.

“We know that the human microbiome is essential for healthy physiological processes. Our research shows that it plays many and varied roles – for example, in the normal development of the immune system, in mediating inflammatory pathways and metabolic processes, and in regulating appetite.

– Dr Hanson

A recent high-level and high-quality study Nature medicine, for example, documents significant new links between health and gut biomes, linking certain microbes to healthy and unhealthy outcomes.

Certain bacterial species appear to be linked to lower appetite, lower body weight, and reduced overall inflammatory status. Recent research from Warwick Medical School has shown that other bacterial species are associated with unfavorable metabolic status. In addition, scientists have recently linked a certain microbiome pattern to healthier aging.

To date, we have only identified around 1,000 of what we think are probably millions of microorganisms in the human body.

By the age of 3, the gut microbiota is established, but various factors are known to affect its diversity and development. These factors include host genetics, diet, age, method of birth, and antibiotics, as well as probiotics, fecal microbiota transplants, and prebiotics.

“So far, the data from human studies are mostly observational in nature. We still lack sufficient evidence to say that healthier and more diverse microbiomes cause better metabolic health; we can only say that these microbiomes are associated to better results. It’s a very different standard. “

– Dr Barber

In a context of greater scientific research and growing public interest, marketers are selling a lot of products on the back of unproven promises. To reduce the clutter of advertising claims and analyze the benefits of the range of items on the shelves, we need to distinguish between fads and facts. Here we give our verdict on what the latest science is telling us.

Scientists believe that probiotics work by maintaining the balance of the normal gut microbiota and improving the immune system. Recent research suggests that certain types of probiotics may benefit specific disease states.

Despite the popularity of probiotics in recent years, there is not enough evidence on the benefits of probiotics and their safety, including possible side effects.

Recent work examined the benefits of transplanting fecal bacteria from healthy donors into people with intestinal disease in order to restore the function of a healthy gut microbiota.

These grafts can process various diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, metabolic disease, autoimmune disease, allergic disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome.

These procedures are much more efficient than probiotics – the effects of transplants on the microbiota last about 24 weeks, compared to 14 days for probiotics.

Plant-based foods are a source prebiotics, which stimulate the growth of intestinal bacteria. Research has shown that prebiotics have three characteristics:

  • They resist absorption from the digestive tract.
  • The microbiome can ferment them.
  • They can have a positive effect on health through a direct or indirect action of the microbiome.

Dietary fiber, mainly from foods of plant origin, is the main source of prebiotics. People can classify dietary fiber into one of two types: soluble, which helps lower cholesterol and glucose levels, or insoluble, which promotes the movement of material through the digestive system.

The main sources of soluble fiber are fruits and vegetables. Although cereals and whole grain products provide insoluble fiber, most foods high in fiber contain both types of fiber.

the current recommendations for dietary fiber intake for adults in most European countries and the United States are 30-35 grams per day (g / day) for men and 25-32 g / day for women, but most people’s diets fall short of that. Recent research Warwick scientists highlight the extent of the existing gap.

These results suggest that most of us should increase our dietary fiber intake by about 50%.

As the team recent research pointed out, the health benefits of dietary fiber are widely recognized. They reduce countless health problems, including excess weight, chronic inflammation, depression, and the risk of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer. Above all, this work also highlights the beneficial effect of dietary fiber on the human microbiome.

We are still learning exactly how it all happens. However, we know that dietary fiber improved the production of key microbial molecules that trigger a reaction that promotes overall health and well-being.

While the interaction between the gut microbiota and the brain is still unclear, it is likely to be complex and multidirectional. We have not yet discovered the precise mechanisms.

Glimpses into the microbiome’s broader role in overall human physical and mental health are on the horizon. In the meantime, the take-home message for the general public remains simple:

Eat lots of fiber. Eat a variety of unprocessed foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. You will have better metabolic health, as well as a more diverse gut microbiome.


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About Terry Gongora

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