What Is Your Microbiome And Why Is It Important?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Microbiome

Probiotics and Hero Bacteria

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

what is your microbiomeSuddenly the term “microbiome” is hot. It is featured in books, internet articles, and marketing materials produced by supplement companies wanting to sell their “magic” probiotic supplements. But, you are confused. You don’t know if what you read is true or just marketing hype.  What is your microbiome anyway?

You have been asking me: “What is my microbiome? “Why is it important?” “How does it affect my health?” “Should I take a probiotic?” “What else should I do?”

I covered this topic in a section of my book, “Slaying The Food Myths” called “Our Mighty Microbiome.”  However, this is an exploding area of scientific research. Published papers on our microbiome have increased by 600% in just the past 10 years. I already need to update the information in my book.

 

What Is Your Microbiome?

what is your microbiome bacteriaYour microbiome is defined as the community of microorganisms (bacteria, yeast and other fungi, and viruses) that live in and on you. Most of those microorganisms are bacteria, and most of them reside in your large intestine. Thus, the term “gut bacteria” is a useful and easier to understand approximation.

We are just beginning to understand just how complex and diverse our microbiome community is. Each of us harbor about 38 trillion microorganisms (give or take a few trillion). That means we each have slightly more microorganisms than we do cells in our body. However, it is not just the sheer number of microorganisms that is impressive. It is the number of different species we harbor in our bodies that indicates the true complexity of our microbiome.

For example, we each have more than 1,000 different species of bacteria in our large intestine. Collectively, these bacteria have around 750,000 unique genes. That is 30 times more than the human genome. Even so, understanding the health implications of our microbiome would be relatively simple if we all had the same species of bacteria in our intestines, but we don’t.

We are all unique. We all have different species in our intestines. The only simplifying principle is that these bacteria seem to exist as in distinct communities that generally group together. Even so, our microbiomes are amazingly complex.

 

We Are What We Eat

what is your microbiome are what we eatYou have probably heard the phrase “We are what we eat” before and dismissed it. After all, we can eat carrots all day long, and we will never turn into a carrot. However, that phrase is literally true when we consider our microbiomes. For example, the microbiomes of meat-eaters have totally different families of microorganisms than microbiomes of vegetarians. We don’t yet fully understand the implications of these differences in gut bacteria. However, we think they may be responsible for some of the differences in health outcomes of meat eaters and vegetarians.

Our microbiomes are also influenced by individual foods in our diet. In part, that is because each food has a unique blend of fibers. To fully comprehend the significance of that statement, we need to understand what fibers do. Most of us think of fibers as the indigestible portion of foods. We think of it as “roughage” that helps keeps our intestines moving and binds toxins, so they can be eliminated safely. That is true, but fiber is much more.

While we can’t digest fiber, the microorganisms living in our intestine can digest much of it. That fiber becomes food for the microorganisms. We refer to food for our intestinal microorganisms as “prebiotics.”  That means you probably need to rethink what the term prebiotic really means.

In the past you have probably thought of prebiotics as supplements designed to support the growth of certain bacteria in our intestines. Now you know that prebiotic also refers to the fibers in the foods we eat. Because each food has a unique blend of fibers, each food supports the growth of slightly different populations of intestinal bacteria. This helps explain why the human microbiome is so complex.

We don’t fully understand the health consequences of these differences in our microbiome, but we think they are huge (see below). This is one reason I do not recommend any diet that eliminates whole food groups. It is easy to say we can replace the missing nutrients with a multivitamin. But, what about the missing fiber? We know that will affect our microbiome. We simply don’t know enough about the long-term health consequences of altering our microbiome to recommend eliminating high fiber foods from our diet. It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

For example, in “Slaying The Food Myths” I discussed the evidence that meat-based low-carb diets are less healthy long term than primarily plant-based low-carb diets. That could be because of saturated fats and excess consumption of red meat. However, it might also be caused by the effect on the microbiome of the food groups that are eliminated in meat-based, low-carb diets.

Finally, as if all of this weren’t complex enough, there is some evidence that our microbiome is influenced by lifestyle (particularly obesity and exercise) and environment (particularly toxins in the environment). But, that’s another topic for another day.

 

Why Is Your Microbiome Important?

 

what is your microbiome hero bactriaNow you know that our microbiome is incredibly complex. You also know “We are what we eat.”  Why are those two things important? While there is a lot we don’t yet know, it appears that our microbiome has a powerful influence on our health.

For example, we know that our gut bacteria can convert components of the foods we eat into compounds that are absorbed into our bloodstream and either have a positive or negative effect on our health. Let me give you some specific examples:

  • “Good” intestinal bacteria produce butyrate in the process of digesting fiber. Butyrate, in turn, is thought to support intestinal health and activate genes that lower blood cholesterol levels.
  • “Bad” intestinal bacteria convert carnitine (a normal human metabolite found in meat, particularly red meat) into trimethylamine-N-oxide or TMAO, which is thought to increase the risk of heart disease. In a cruel twist of fate, these particular “bad” bacteria seem to be prevalent in the microbiome of meat-eaters, but absent from the microbiome of vegetarians.
  • We have been told that polyphenols are good for us. However, polyphenols are poorly absorbed. Fortunately, polyphenols are rapidly metabolized by our microbiome into metabolites that are more easily absorbed. Many experts think it is those microbiome-produced metabolites that are responsible for the health benefits of polyphenols. If everyone’s microbiome is different, how does that affect the health benefits of polyphenols. A recent study  puts this into perspective. The authors fed an apple extract to 12 individuals and measured 110 polyphenol metabolites in their blood over the next 5 hours. The pattern of blood metabolites was different for every individual in the study. Furthermore, the pattern of blood metabolites correlated with differences in the species of bacteria in their intestine.

I have given examples of 3 different kinds of food-microbiome interactions here. There are more examples of each type of food-microbiome interaction in the literature. This just adds another layer of complexity. Not only does the food we eat affect our microbiome, but our microbiome influences how we metabolize the foods we eat. We are just beginning to understand how these differences influence our health. However, based on what we currently know, here are some of the ways our microbiome can influence our health:

Current evidence suggests that “bad” bacteria and yeast in our intestines may:

  • Compromise our immune system.
  • Create a “leaky gut”, which allows partially digested foods to get into the bloodstream where they can trigger inflammation and auto-immune responses.
  • Adversely affect brain function and moods.
  • Convert components of the foods we eat into compounds which increase the risk of cancer and heart disease.
  • Perhaps, even make us fat.

In contrast, “good” bacteria:

  • Crowd out the bad bacteria and prevent the health problems they cause.
  • Break down undigested fiber into compounds that are beneficial to our health.

 

What About Probiotics?

what is your microbiome probioticsNow you know how important our microbiome is to our health, you are probably wondering whether you should add one or more probiotic supplements to your health regimen. Let me give you a brief primer on probiotic supplements.

“Hero Bacteria”: We have over 1,000 species of bacteria in our microbiome, and they work together in families. With that complexity, you may be wondering how someone could hope to create a probiotic supplement that worked. Fecal transplants (all the intestinal bacteria from a healthy individual) have been used for some life-threatening conditions, but I don’t think that is an approach most of us want to consider.

For better or worse, modern science uses a reductionist approach. We focus on a single component of a system and test its effectiveness in clinical studies. In the probiotic world, we focus on an individual strain of bacteria. If it proves effective in clinical studies, it is given a name and is used in probiotic supplements. It becomes what I call a “hero bacteria.”

For example, if scientists were looking for a probiotic supplement to aid with digestion or immunity, they would test dozens of strains initially. They would then select the one strain for further study. It may have been selected because it performed best in the preliminary studies. However, it may have been selected based on other characteristics, such as how easy it was for the scientist to grow in a culture dish. That strain is then put through rigorous clinical trials. If it performs well there, it becomes a “hero bacteria” suitable for a probiotic supplement. It has been “proven” to provide a specific benefit to our health.

However, it is not the only bacteria to provide that benefit. It might not have even been the “best” bacteria. It may have simply been the one that grew best in the lab.

Rule #1: Look for one or more named “hero bacteria” in your probiotic supplement. They have been proven to provide a specific health benefit.

Not All “Hero Bacteria” Are Created Equal: In some cases, companies that have developed a particular strain of “hero bacteria” have published the clinical studies supporting their claims in peer-reviewed journals. In other cases, they make the study claims, but say their data is “proprietary.” I am a skeptic. If they haven’t published their data, I assume it wasn’t good enough to be published.

Rule #2: Avoid any probiotic supplements that do not provide you with studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals showing that studies with their “hero bacteria” support their product claims.

Some Companies Get Ahead Of What Good Science Supports: Their claims sound amazing, but they aren’t supported by clinical proof. They call it marketing. I call it lying.

In some cases, the lying is clear because they don’t provide you with clinical studies published in peer-reviewed journals.

However, if their claims sound too good to be true and they have provided clinical studies published in peer-reviewed journals, my advice is to read the studies. You don’t need to be an expert. The abstracts for every published article are available online. Read the abstract and see what health claims it makes. [Reviewers of peer-review articles generally insist that the claims match the evidence.] If a company’s marketing claims exceed the claims from the published studies backing their product, they are probably lying to you.

Rule #3: If a company’s marketing claims exceed the claims from the published studies backing their product, run the other direction. They are lying to you.

It Takes A Village: While it is useful to have one or more “hero bacteria” in your probiotic supplement, don’t assume that is all you need. Remember that you have many more than one or two bacteria in your gut. You have a thousand or more different species. For every “hero bacteria” that has gone through the clinical review process, there are dozens more that provide the same benefit, and they all work together. More importantly, they work by different mechanisms. You need a holistic approach to creating a healthier microbiome.

My recommendation is to choose probiotic supplements that contain several species that work together rather than just a single “hero bacteria.” I also recommend following a diet that supports a healthy microbiome. Based on what we currently know, that would be a primarily plant-based diet containing all five food groups.

Rule #4: Choose probiotic supplements that contain several species that work together rather than a single “hero bacteria”.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Because I know how confusing the term “microbiome” is to most of you I have written a brief overview of our microbiome and what it does. Topics I have covered are:

  • What is our microbiome?
  • How do the foods we eat influence our microbiome?
  • How does our microbiome influence the metabolism of the foods we eat?
  • How does our microbiome influence our health?
  • How do you select a good probiotic supplement?

If any of these topics interest you, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (3)

  • Mary Romer

    |

    Thank you so much for all of your articles. Found this one to be especially informative.

    Reply

  • Brenda Anderberg

    |

    This was helpful for me. I have been wondering about the fairly new ‘craze’ is about probiotics & which one to purchase. Then PRE biopics began their hard sell marketing and confused me more as I did not know the difference. Still working on that one.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Brenda,
      You will find guidelines in tomorrow’s health tip.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Best Diet For Heart Disease Prevention

Posted July 9, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are The American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

What is the best diet for heart disease prevention? 

diet for heart disease preventionHeart disease is a killer. It continues to be the leading cause of death – both worldwide and in industrialized countries like the United States and the European Union. When we look at heart disease trends, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The good news is that heart disease deaths are continuing to decline in adults over 70.
  • The decline among senior citizens is attributed to improved treatment of heart disease and more seniors following heart-healthy diets.
  • The bad news is that heart disease deaths are starting to increase in younger adults, something I reported in an earlier issue, Heart Attacks Increasing in Young Women of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • The reason for the rise in heart disease deaths in young people is less clear. However, the obesity epidemic, junk and convenience foods, and the popularity of fad diets all likely play a role.

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

Of course, we don’t eat fats, carbohydrates, or proteins. We eat foods. That is why a recent study (T Meier et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 34: 37-45, 2019) is so important. It reported which foods increase and which decrease the risk of premature heart disease deaths.

How Was The Study Done?

diet for heart disease prevention studyThe authors of the current study analyzed data from the “Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) Study”, a major world-wide effort designed to estimate the portions of deaths caused by various risk factors.

The current study focused on the impact of 12 dietary risk factors on heart disease deaths between 1990 and 2016 for 51 countries in four regions (Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia).

The dietary risk factors were:

  • Diets low in fiber, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains.
  • Diets high in sodium, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and trans fatty acids.

Saturated fat and meat were not explicitly included in the GBS Study data. However, diets low in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats are likely high in saturated fats. Similarly, diets low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are likely higher in meats. The study also did not include dairy, and some recent studies suggest that some dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk.

For simplicity I will only consider the findings from Western Europe because their diet and heart disease death trends are similar to those in the United States.

 

Best Diet for Heart Disease Prevention?

plant-based diet bestThe study found that in 2016 (the last year for which data were available):

  • Dietary risk factors were responsible for 49.2% of heart disease deaths.
  • 6% of all diet-related heart disease deaths occurred in adults younger than 70, and that percentage has been increasing in recent years.

When they looked at the contribution of individual foods to diet related heart disease deaths, the percentages were:

  • Diets low in whole grains = 20.4%
  • Diets low in nuts and seeds = 16.2%
  • Diets low in fruits = 12.5%
  • Diets high in sodium = 12.0%
  • Diets low in omega-3s = 10.8%
  • strong heartDiets low in vegetables = 9.0%
  • Diets low in legumes = 7.0%
  • Diets low in fiber = 5.7%
  • Diets low in polyunsaturated fats = 3.7%
  • Diets high in processed meats = 1.6%
  • Diets high in trans fatty acids = 0.8%
  • Diets high in sugar-sweetened beverages = 0.1%

So, what is the best diet for heart disease prevention?

In short, this study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat was not included in the analysis, but it is likely that most people’s diets in this region of the world contained some meat. The most likely take-away is that meat does not affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis either, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in Western Europe.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

Are the American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

A recent study provides some important clues. It looked at dietary patterns associated with reduced risk of premature death from heart disease in Western Europe. The study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat did not appear to affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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