There is growing evidence that gut bacteria is linked to obesity. Preliminary experiments with mice appear to be supported by human studies.
Ongoing research into the role of the microbiome (bacteria in the gut) in human wellbeing is at a very early stage. But the frequency of media headlines linking gut bacteria to health is growing. As with all areas of science, claims which have not been verified in clinical trials and subsequently replicated must be treated with caution. Nevertheless the evidence of a relationship between gut microbiome diversity and obesity has been repeatedly demonstrated in mice.
The microbiome is a term used to describe all of the genetic material of a microbiota, the entire range of microorganisms present in a particular context, in this case the human gut.
There have been a number of studies which show that obese mice tend to have fewer different types of gut bacteria than thin mice. The thinking is that a greater range of gut bacteria is likely to positively influence the way that the digestive system breaks down food. Having more (types of) bacteria is linked to efficient processing of what we eat, with the results of a tendency not to be obese. Recent research reported in The Independent looked at the weight gained by 1,632 female twins over nine years. The study calculated that only 41% of the weight increase could be explained by genetic factors.
On closer inspection it was estimated that becoming slimmer or maintaining the same weight was connected to the consumption of dietary fibre (typically found in whole grains, fruit and vegetables). The study also discovered that the women who had gained weight, had a lower diversity of gut bacteria. These findings were in line with similar studies with mice. Although not yet conclusive the overall evidence linking the shape of our body and the composition of our microbiome is growing.
There is a two way communication system between the gut and brain, this is one way that gut microbiota mediate our health.
The growing excitement over the role of gut bacteria is being fuelled, in part, by the realisation of the potential role of the gut – brain axis. The gut-brain axis is the hard wiring between the digestive tract and the brain. That is to say a direct communication link passing information between neural, hormonal and immune systems. A key point to make is that the communication is bi-directional, that means the brain talks to the gut and that the gut talks to the brain. Thus the microbiota (gut bacteria) and metaboloites (small molecules that are the product of metabolism) may be in reciprocal communication with different parts of the brain. While this has a direct and obvious impact on processes related to eating and digesting, there is rising evidence that our gut flora may be significant factors in physical and mental health.
The relationship between emotions and the digestive system is one of which we are intuitively aware. For example, feelings of love often manifest as ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. Engaging in team sports enables you to observe pre-match nerves in both yourself and others; the digestive system often plays an obvious role in how some people deal with tension! There is evidence that stress is a mediating component in gut microbiota, perhaps through increasing or decreasing the optimal conditions for certain types of bacteria to flourish.
New studies are suggesting that individual microbiota may be influential in functions as apparently disparate as memory and fear. It is not known what the basis of the relationship is, where the causality can be found. But that there is a correlation between what is in our gut and how we experience life in terms of mental and physical well being. The take home point is that many of the things we eat and drink are able to positively and negatively influence our health. By taking more interest in what goes into your stomach you might do yourself a power of good.
Outstanding lecture from Prof Simon Carding, how gut bacteria mediates both physical and mental health
Emerging research is demonstrating a profound relationship between the bacteria in our gut and how well we are, our lived experience. In this outstanding lecture Prof. Simon Carding offers insights, new and old into ideas about our gut bacteria. Warning you may see the world a little differently after watching the video!