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.
Eat more raw, to get the most from prebiotics and probiotics consider how you prepare your food.
As a fermentation fan and a non-strict vegan, eggs are not normally part of my diet. However a recent scientific study that came out of China got me thinking more generally about food preparation. In the UK eggs have enjoyed a love-hate relationship with food experts and nutritionists. In 1988 Health Minister Edwina Currie announced that UK egg production was badly affected by salmonella. Although she lost her job, uncertainty over the benefit of eating eggs remained. There has also been a long standing disquiet over the suffering experienced by hens in the ‘industrialised’ production of eggs. Scientists still suggest that there may be a correlation between egg consumption and a number of health problems.
Conversely a new large scale study from China has suggested eggs may actually reduce risk of stroke and heart disease. The current advice from the NHS is that the cholesterol found in eggs is less of a health problem than the effect of saturated fat from the cooking process. Indicating that boiled or poached eggs may be significantly better for you than fried. This is not an endorsement of eggs as a health food per se’ but it draws attention to the strong relationship between health and food preparation. So what has this got to do with fermentation, prebiotics and probiotics?
One of the reasons we cook food for a sustained period is to destroy potentially harmful bacteria. It follows then that if food, such as sauerkraut is cooked at a high temperature for a sustained period much of the helpful bacteria will be removed. People starting to think about gut-bacteria from scratch (like us), might be surprised to know that commercially available products thought to be ‘probiotic’ may in fact be pasturised (heat treated) or made from pasturised ingredients.
This is one of the reasons why home fermentation is taking off in such a big way. There are certain challenges to delivering high quality, probiotically rich foods, safely and at a competitive price. So if you are purchasing probiotics check the labels to ensure things are as they appear, in particular watch out for the word ‘pasturised’. This is not so say that you can’t cook ‘live’ yogurt in a curry or sauerkraut in a pork casserole. It’s just you may be loosing a lot of the bacterial benefit.
A quick word about prebiotics. Prebiotic is a blanket term for any food ingredients likely to enhance the growth and development of beneficial bacteria, typically (but not limited to) those found in the large intestine. In order to arrive at the large intestine, food needs to be structurally able to resist breakdown in the stomach. Foodstuffs in this group can (loosely) be thought of as ‘dietary fiber’. If you do a little research in this area you’ll find that many of the most useful prebiotics are in fact raw vegetables. That is because cooking can limit the probiotic benefit effect of certain foods.
There are many valid reasons why people may wish to cook fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products. The take home point is that if you don’t already, you might wish to take a look at how you prepare your food and the extent to which you are maximizing your support for beneficial gut microorganisms.
Can fibre reduce your chances of contracting colon cancer?
I have been a fan of Dr Michael Greger for some considerable time. He excels at explaining important and often complex nutrition research in a way that most people can understand. Michael recently wrote about the benefits of fibre to health, its crucial role in feeding the ‘good’ gut bacteria. Put simply out gut bacteria converts fibre into short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFAs deliver a range of benefits and are thought to reduce the chances of contracting colon cancer.
It’s not simply that SCFA promote gut health generally, fibre helps to maintain gut flora. A failure to eat enough fibre can lead to the starvation and decline of healthy bacteria. This typically allows for an imbalance (dysbiosis), where potentially harmful bacteria begin to dominate, perhaps leading to a range of inflammatory diseases and even colon cancer. Further links even suggest a connection to cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
A relative small amounts of fibre is needed to sustain healthy gut bacteria, in many cases just a handful of chickpeas every day. And yet there is evidence that many people in the USA and UK are failing to include sufficient fibre into their daily diet.
Kefir appears to offer significantly greater benefit than commercially produced probiotic drinks.
Dr Michael Mosley has been helping to run a study for the BBC looking at the relative benefits to gut health from a range of products. Volunteers and scientists collaborated to try to discover which of three probiotics/prebiotics had the biggest positive impact on gut bacteria.
The first product was a commercially available drink, branded as a probiotic and available in major supermarkets. The second item up for comparison was kefir, a traditional milk and yeast fermented substance, a little like yogurt. These first two foods were compared with vegetables high in natural prebiotic fibre called inulin. Inulin is found in range of foods including chicory (chicory root is a rich source) and scallions (onions, leeks and garlic).
The poorest preforming of the three in this trial was the probiotic drink. The participants in this group demonstrated a modest (statistically non significant) change in lachnospiraceae gut bacteria. Conversely significant changes in gut flora were seen in the group consuming prebiotic fibre. The people that consumer kefir enjoyed the most positive increase to gut bacteria.
It should be pointed out that any comparison between prebiotics and probiotics is not a like for like test. Prebiotics deliver the food that supports existing bacteria and create the conditions for further colonization. A probiotic is intended to introduce microorganisms directly into the body.
The BBC study concluded that traditionally produced fermented foods (or even home made versions) may offer the greatest benefits to consumers in terms of increased gut flora. A key problem with mass produced fermented foods and drinks is pasteurisation. Pasturised goods are regarded as safer, which also correlates to a longer shelf life. By comparison traditionally made kefir has to be consumed in a relatively short space of time. This is perhaps the choice we consumers face, if we want maximum health benefits from the food we make or buy we may have to sacrifice some of the convenience of long sell by dates.