17 December 2012: Bacteria

A few months ago as part of my Masters studies I reviewed an interesting scientific study. The study looked retrospectively at the gut bacteria of infants, as measured within the first months of life, and compared this to their weight at entering primary school. Interestingly, researchers discovered that there was a significant difference in the gut bacteria between those children that went on to become obese by primary school and those that remained lean. This was even after matching for birth-weight and other factors. While there are several limitations to the study, it is pretty clear that our gut bacteria plays an important role in weight regulation. And this is not new. Research has shown quite clearly that the microbiome or flora that populates our intestines is involved in many important functions – which makes sense since the DNA of this population we host dwarfs us by many tens of thousands over. It also calls into question the theory of a calorie is a calorie – actually I think that theory is pretty well dead isn’t it???? There is ample research showing that calories are extracted differently from different macronutrients depending on the composition of the bacteria in our guts.To some extent we are born with our gut bacteria already established and it is thought that this changes little – however we can still manipulate the flora through lifestyle – diet, medications, stress, exercise etc. Meaning that there are things that you can be doing daily to help maintain or establish good gut flora and ultimately optimal health. With all those millions of bugs to feed it just makes sense that they are able to influence health and that your choices are able to influence them. And just when you thought you were all alone?! The biggest influences – both negative and positive that impact on the composition of gut flora include: antibiotics which kill of various populations letting others get an upper hand; diet – especially diets high in sugars and starches which feed certain bacteria and discourage others; stress – same deal; and fermented foods – which encourage healthy beneficial flora. To me this area of research is hugely interesting and I am not the only one – I think knowledge and interest in this area is exploding right now and will continue to do so. Yes I admit I really really like reading scientific studies on health and nutrition and gut bugs. It might be my job or maybe Im just a closet nerd.