I was one of the pioneer clinical ecologists in the late 70s, early 80s, who found, purely empirically (trial and error) that probiotics help quell gut inflammation.
It was easy to create a theory that matched: antibiotics had trashed our natural bowel flora, aliens had moved in and, by restoring the balance, using probiotics, we were able to bring about recovery. If you have been living on Planet Zod and not yet heard about probiotics, that means friendly germs, like the yoghurt bacteria, which are supposed to fill our and gut push out the unhealthy microbes.
Antibiotics suddenly seemed not nearly such a good idea.
I think we were a little smug, with hindsight. We scoffed at our orthodox colleagues, who just didn’t “get it”. Indeed, they reciprocated by being nasty and abusive about this theory. Doctors who espoused it were all humbugs, crooks and/or fools, according to the gatekeepers of “real” science.
Well time proved we were right, at least to a degree. Eventually, after a 20-year cultural lag, orthodox doctors got onto it too. You’ve probably heard the old scientific gag, that medical research goes through several clearly defined phases:
1. You must be crazy, that’s ridiculous
2. There might be something in it
3. Where’s the proof?
4. We knew that all along
We seemed to have reached stage 4 with probiotics. Orthodox colleagues then actually brought in the concept of prebiotics and began to study them. Prebiotics are substances, typically natural foods, that favor our natural, friendly gut flora and make them feel at home. Fiber is one of the classic prebiotics (Jerusalem artichoke is a prime example).
This turned out to be an A-1 good idea! Prebiotics make probiotics work much better than before.
But things started to go a bit pear-shaped after that. As we learned more and more about the human gene biome, we simultaneously began to discover about the gene pool of other organisms.
In our own guts, it turned out we have MILLIONS of genes from microbes, which vastly outnumber our own measly supply of genes (around 25,000, give or take). This vast gene pool rejoices in the name: The Human Microbiome.
Now, genes are not just about what color your eyes are, or what gender. Genes actually are mainly about proteins and enzyme reactions. So what a bunch of genes stands for will affect how metabolism takes place.
Since we are vastly outnumbered by microbial genes in our gut, what we feed on and can process, or even tolerate, is mostly dictated by them, not all the things you once read in a physiology book about what was SUPPOSED to happen during digestion.
What we once called “food allergy” is really best seen as dysfunction of the Human Microbiome. So we got the right result but often with the wrong explanation. I started writing this in later version of my food allergy books: that we were really looking at variants of genetic coding of how we handled foods.
Even so, up until just a couple years ago, we still thought in terms of HUMAN GENES dictating our food tolerances.
Now that too is way out of date! There has been such an explosion of our understanding of our microbiome (a new science called metagenomics) that it is now correct to think of humans PLUS their microbial load as a giant Superorganism.
What lives down in our gut is so much part of our make up and function, that it has been likened to a “forgotten organ”.
All this is background to an interesting new paper, just published (October 2011), by a team headed by Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, a biologist and director of the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis.
Scientists decided to investigate yoghurt supplements. What they found was very surprising. Adding a few billion of these microbial organisms to a gut community already containing tens of trillions of bacteria can, in fact, influence the metabolism of food ingredients.
But here’s the stinger: the structure of the microbe community didn’t change. Yet its function was very different.
Using carefully raised mice, with either normal guts or the exact mimic of human guts, scientists were able to make comparisons. Then both groups were fed lots of yoghurt.
The result: The bacterial species in the yoghurt did not take up fresh residence in either the human or animal consumers. Thus, the bacterial environment found in the guts of both mouse and man was roughly the same before and after yoghurt consumption.
BUT THE BOWEL FUNCTION IN THE HUMANIZED GROUP WAS VERY DIFFERENT FROM THAT OF THE CONTROLS.
One of the striking differences was that the humanized mice, fed yoghurt, were able to metabolize carbohydrates differently.
So it’s true: probiotics probably can help you keep your weight down.
Moreover, dysbiosis, or our messed up guts due to the barrage of antibiotics we get dosed with, is likely what’s behind obesity and abnormal glucose metabolism.
This has great inferences for the epidemic of so-called “Diabesity”.
Wow, I love science at its best!
Funding for the research came from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Danone Research, an arm of the food conglomerate that makes Dannon probiotic yogurt Activia.
I bet they were disappointed with the fact that their yoghurt did not increase bowel populations of lactobacillus. But they must have been satisfied that this was a great piece of research. As Justin Sonnenburg, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine, said: the study as “interesting, subtle and incredibly well-designed.”
The study is published in the Oct. 26, 2011, issue of Science Translational Medicine.
Now to learn more about NOT using antibiotics, you need my latest book: the print copy is just out. You can read either the digital or the “real” book; your choice.
It’s not just myths and wise-woman stories. I like my science. It helps “digest” the facts! Yum!
Go here to get yourself a copy:
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this with me!
PS: Jerusalem artichoke makes great fries (chips to the British). Cut them into penny slices and fry ‘em. Choose smoke-free oil though, or just a low light for coconut or olive oil.