Could gut bacteria and therefore diet hold important secrets about the causes of fibromyalgia syndrome?
Perhaps I should begin by describing the range of symptoms most commonly associated with fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). According to the NHS1, increased sensitivity to pain is typically experienced by sufferers of FMS, it can be so severe that even a light touch can be a problem. There is evidence2 that when fibromyalgia patients are exposed to pain-inducing stimuli, they demonstrate a stronger neurologic pain signature that a control group (people without fibromyalgia). However, the pain is not restricted just to the sense of touch, it can also be provoked by things a person might see, inhale or eat. People living with FMS might also experience great tiredness, problems sleeping, muscle stiffness and spasms, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), poor cognitive function and headaches. The syndrome is also frequently correlated with anxiety and depression. FMS can be a life-changing and debilitating condition, unfortunately, the causes are currently unknown, although abnormal levels of brain chemicals are thought to play an important role.
If the findings of a scientific study published last week3 are confirmed, FMS may have to be viewed in a totally new light. A team of scientists compared the gut microbiomes of 77 women with FMS to a control group. Significant differences were identified in the composition of the gut bacteria of these two groups. Through algorithmic analysis, the variance in the respective groups of microbiomes was found to be linked to FMS related issues (more than any other cause). So put simply, if the results translate to the wider population, people living with FMS are likely to have different gut bacteria than those without FMS. There is not any suggestion of causality here, that gut bacteria alone is the cause of fibromyalgia. However, we cannot avoid the speculative idea that changes to gut bacteria could mediate the symptoms experienced by FMS patients.
This is just one study, the results have to be replicated in order for provisional findings to be confirmed. But if demonstrated to be reliable, the evidence would signpost new ways to understand and possibly treat FMS. For example, can the composition of gut bacteria be changed away from that typically found in someone with FMS, to a profile resembling someone without FMS? If any such change led to a reduction or elimination of fibromyalgia symptoms, a new way to deal with this illness might be developed, perhaps linked to diet. This is particularly interesting when considered alongside studies that suggest chemicals found in everyday food such as bread may be able to disrupt the gut microbiome.
It will take a sustained period of research in scientific and clinical environments to confirm any of the speculative hypotheses discussed here. But at least two important issues emerge from this latest evidence. Firstly, that the gut-brain axis can be considered as a potential mediating factor is FMS, and secondly, that gut microbiome alteration may be correlated with non-visceral pain more generally. Therefore eating or not eating ‘healthily’ may be linked to an increasingly wide range of human health conditions.
Blueberries appear to offer a wide range of benefits including supporting guthealth.
Being a meditation scientist I often write about lifestyle choices that support augmented brain function and structure. As a general rule food that is associated with a healthy brain also positively correlates with improved general health and well-being. So having just blogged an article explaining how blueberry consumption can reduce effective brain age by up to 2.5 years I looked up potential relationships between blueberries and the gut microbiome.
Berries in general and blueberries, in particular, are good natural sources of polyphenols and therefore limit the effect of oxidisation, a cause of cell damage. But we also know that polyphenols lead to a healthier gut through the creation of metabolites which in turn support communities of beneficial bacteria.
As we age, chronic diseases become more likely1, when low-grade inflammation is an underlying factor, scientists refer to this as the “inflammaging” syndrome. In the gut, health inflammaging is linked to a weakening of a number of internal systems (homeostasis) including a reduction in the efficiency of the immune barrier. In experiments with mice, it was suggested that polyphenols reduced intestinal inflammation and led to the modulation of the gut microbiota. The evidence is that berries are rich sources of polyphenols and so are likely to have a positive impact on chronic diseases linked to gut health, particularly in older populations.
According to the Blueberry Council, the benefits of blueberries extend beyond inflammaging.
Experiments have demonstrated an improved insulin response in blueberry-fed mice when compared to controls.
Further evidence for augmented cognitive function in animals and humans has been found.
There are also preliminary studies supporting a relationship between blueberry consumption and reduced growth in cancerous cells.
Polyphenol is found in a wide range of fruit and vegetables as well as nuts and pulses. Here are some of the top 100 food sources of polyphenol according to a study published in 20102.
Lentils appear to have an important role to play in human health and wellbeing., particularly obesity.
A simple message; loose weight and improve your health by eating lentils.
I’m not really an advocate of taking the pleasure out of eating food, people must choose to eat what they want, what they can afford and what suits their lifestyle. I am however disappointed with the lack of relevant health messages provided for consumers (it is in some regards why this blog was started). I think the humble lentil illustrates this point particularly well. Lentils (in general) have a number of qualities not widely known about or discussed in the mainstream, they are high in fibre, low in fat, good sources of protein, they are widely available, easy to grow and relatively inexpensive. It should also be mentioned that they are ingredients in some very popular dishes including soups, stews and daals. Lentils are good for us on so many levels that the government and the NHS should be funding extensive lentil related research and promotions. We also now know that lentils are an excellent prebiotic.
In the context of food, prebiotics are fibre able to pass through the digestive system to the large bowel (colon), where they feed and thus encourage the growth of helpful bacteria.
At around 1% fat, lentils are a useful addition to the food cupboards of people striving to maintain a healthy body weight. There is also evidence that their prebiotic effects may also offer support in the fight against obesity. There is a growing body of scientific research suggesting that less calories and more prebiotics are correlated with lower levels of obesity. Prebiotics are now known to increase the quality and quantity of gut bacteria in the colon and lead to the augmentation in the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA are linked to both increased efficiency in the use of calories and decreased obesity. Overall, the evidence suggests that eating lentils regularly is associated with reductions in levels of obesity. Lentils also tend to make you feel full, which has obvious implications for health and diet.
Another key issue to mention is that lentils are high in protein, up to 20g in a 100g serving. This is particular useful for vegans and vegetarians whom sometimes struggle to find enough protein in plant based food. As well as protein you can expect to receive significant proportions of wider nutritional needs in from lentils, such as around half your daily recommended intake of Thiamine (B1), VB6, Folate (B9), Iron, Phosphorus and Zinc.
It should be pointed out again that lentils are tasty and versatile, their consumption doesn’t have to be a chore. The take home point is that by eating lentils three or four times a week you might be able to significantly improve your health and wellbeing in a number of ways. Always interested in receiving and publishing your lentil recipes!
To fully explore the benefits of lentils would require a series of articles but if anyone is interested in the specific role lentils have in reducing obesity, take a look at the work by Dil Thavarajah , Pushparajah Thavarajah, Casey R. Johnson and Shiv Kumar here.
Your diet can play a significant role in your chances of becoming obese, suffering from asthma or a range of other illnesses.
Discovery, a general science programme from the BBC World Service, has put together a helpful three part guide to the human microbiome. It is made for the wider World Service audience so it presents the issues in an interesting but accessible way. The discussion of the subject matter is engaging, and important contributions are made by leading scientists in the field such as Prof Rob Knight, from the University of California and Prof Tim Spector from Kings.
The show provides a general outline broken down into three parts; Manipulating Our Hidden Half, Dirt and Development and Gateway to the Mind. The idea that humans (in common with other animals) have not one but two genomes is central to this mini series. Our human genome is the one handed down to us through our parents, set in stone at conception. The so called second genome is made up of a vast pool of genetic diversity present in the microbes found throughout and within our bodies. The Human Microbiome Project has begun the process of analyzing the large number of microbes present in us. Two key issues that have started to excite scientists in recent years are,
the extent to which microbes can influence human health and experience.
the ability of individuals to alter their own microbial profile.
For example, it is generally observed that increased diversity of different kinds of helpful bacteria in the gut, is correlated with improved wellness. Studies in obesity, allergies, asthma and auto immunity suggest that gut bacteria may have a crucial role in meditating our health. This opens up the prospect that lifestyles remedies such as changes to diet may offer us significant potential benefits. It also raises the question about the long term benefits of medication known to have a detrimental affect on gut bacteria such as antibiotics.
This then takes us back to the discussion of probiotic and prebiotic food and drinks. When you consume products rich in helpful bacteria (probiotics) or the soluble fibre known to support microbial diversity in the large intestine (prebiotics), you are likely to be improving your health in a number of ways. It cannot yet be said that there is a direct causal relationship between your diet and certain illnesses. However the scientists are starting to think of gut bacteria as increasing or decreasing the chances of suffering from particular health problems.
At the time of writing all three programmes were freely available online or to download here.
What is fermentation and how is it related to health and well being?
The growing area of study linking human microbiota to health and wellbeing is seeing the development of new learning opportunities. The extent to which microorganisms on our skin and in our bodies meditate our lived experience can be understood through a free Coursera module, Gut check; exploring your microbiome. Maggie and I have completed the first two weeks, I thought potential future students might be interested in hearing more about what this course entails.
This MOOC is produced by the University of Colorado Boulder and the tutors are all linked to the institution; Professor Rob Knight, Dr. Jessica L. Metcalf and Dr. Katherine R. Amato.
As you might expect week one offers an overview of the subject area. Explanations are given for what microbes are in relation to each other (Bacteria, Archaea, Eukaryotes and Viruses) and all living organisms. The role of microbes more generally is explained before looking at how microbes and humans interact. Definitions include the distinction between human microbiota (a community of microbes), and the microbiota (the total genes in the microbiota).
The material highlights a number of interesting microbiome facts including that whilst humans share 99.99% of the same DNA, two humans may only have 10% of their microbiomes in common. This is one of the reasons why gut bacteria is thought to be influential in how we experience life. Although the majority of our microbes live in our gut, there are communities all over us (mouth, skin, vagina). We are born sterile and then communities of microbiota become established at a very early age, changes to these communities happen throughout our lives. The module material clearly illustrates that the microbes we are exposed to have an import role in our lives.
The first week provides a useful introduction to the subject and offers a context for later material. Beyond week 1, the course follows a much stronger academic path. Explaining the science behind the study of microbiota and moving onto subjects such as alpha diversity and ‘fuzzy microbes’. If you’ve tried the MOOC what do you think?
A basic guide to gut health, key terms defined and explained.
Understanding gut health; 1 the basics
The scientific investigation of gut bacteria and its relationship to wellbeing is at a very early stage. There are discoveries every week that support, coexist with or contradict earlier findings. It’s a rapidly developing and dynamic area of human knowledge. The good news is, there are many resources available to anyone who wants to understand and take control of their own health through diet.
As a starting point there are a few concepts that are best understood at the outset. Not everyone uses these terms in the same way but try these definitions as a starting point.
Microorganism is widely used in talking about gut health, it is a general description for any organism that is too small to see with the naked eye. Some scientists prefer not to use the word but you are likely to come across it widely if you start reading about gut bacteria. Bacteria, viruses, archaea and fungi are all typically included in the term.
Microbiota is generally used to denote the population of microbes in any given community or system. Flora appears to have largely the same meaning as microbiota and appears interchangeably. For example gut flora means the same thing as gut microbiota.
The aggregate of all the genes of an entire population of microorganisms in any environment is described as a microbiome.
Typically scientists divide human microbiota into populations linked to their environment, such as skin, mouth, nose, digestive tract, and in females also the vagina. The largest population of microbes occur in the digestive tract, also known as the gut. Bacteria are the largest type of microbe in the human gut and bacteria reflects the dominant interest of scientific research. Gut bacteria are the main recipients of the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics, that is why the term gut bacteria and gut health is so prominent in media accounts of research findings. Technically speaking the plural of bacteria is bacterium but you will rarely see this outside of science journals, bacteria is typically used as the singular and plural form in most everyday situations.
A key point to make is that the gut has an important two way communication system with the human brain. That means to think of fermented food and drinks as only involved in what happens in the intestinal tract is a mistake. What we eat and drink has has the potential to exert a widespread influence across a number of systems.
As science begins to unravel the importance of gut bacteria to health and wellbeing, there’s never been a better time to learn about human microbiota.
So what’s the big deal about the fermentation of food and drink? Why is there such an interest in it now when it’s been around for thousands of years? The growing ability of science to study microorganisms has opened up research linking the human microbiome to a range of health and wellbeing benefits. Even though this research is at an early stage, there are signs that our understanding of the human condition is entering a new era. Fermentation has a central role in this process, prebiotics and probiotics may be able to make a significant contribution to the quality of our lives and the state of our health.
The awareness that fermented foods may be beneficial is a useful starting point, but there are resources available for anyone wanting to know more. Maggie and I have signed up for the Coursera MOOC, Gut Check; Exploring Your Microbiome. MOOCs are multiple open online courses; essentially short samples of higher and further education. They are typically free and offered by experts in their fields. All materials are available online, and a study commitment of three to five hours for between four to eight weeks are required by students. There is usually an assessment required to complete a MOOC and a verified certificate may be available for a fee.
We will provide a weekly report of the Gut Check MOOC. But for anyone considering signing up for the course, it starts with a basic outline of the microbiome and microbiota (What is the human microbiome? What’s in your gut and how is the human microbiome studied?). It takes a little effort, but it is accessible to most people with a desire to learn and a basic knowledge of biology. This course is offered on the Coursera platform, there are other MOOC providers and free courses available in the same or similar areas of study. We welcome feedback about this or similar resources, feel free to enter your comments in the box below.