Breast cancer and your diet

Latest study links processed meat to increased risks of breast cancer.

Your diet and breast cancer
Breast cancer and your diet

Latest research confirms processed meat increases breast cancer risk

I generally have mixed feelings writing about lifestyle choices correlated with increased risks of cancer. I don’t think provoking people’s fear is usually beneficial and I don’t see my role as pushing people towards or away from things that I feel are important. Even as a vegetarian and now a non-strict vegan I have never found that scare tactics draw people into thinking about their own wellbeing or that of others. I do retain however a genuine sense of gratitude to the people that educated me about the relationship between diet, gut bacteria and mental and physical health. So if I highlight the latest research reviewing the dangers of eating processed meats it does reflect my own thoughts but I hope that it offers readers the opportunity to make an informed choice about what they eat.

An understanding of the health risks of eating animal products has been around for decades, and the scientific evidence of potential dangers linked to meat consumption increase week to week. The latest study to hit the media, reports that women who eat processed meat products such as bacon and sausages, have a 9% increased risk of breast cancer compared to women eating low levels of those products. This is not the first (nor the last I’ll bet) study that links meat with increased risks of developing cancer. But once you look into this issue further you realize that eating processed meat is a triple whammy! Firstly you have the statistically evidenced increased risk of breast cancer, secondly there are also greater risks of a wide range of other health problems. But also that while you’re eating potentially harmful animal products you are not consuming health supporting fresh fruit and vegetables.

As a society we know that the mass, unthinking consumption of animals and animal products isn’t helping us individually or benefiting the wider society. I’m an advocate of a healthy diet based primarily on plants, including fermented products. The indications are that even if you eat fresh fruit and vegetables alongside your processed meats, the benefits to your gut health are going to be limited. A final point to consider is that if we know that the type and quality of the food we eat affects our own health, what is the impact on us of the diet of the animals we consume? If animals are being reared in harsh unsanitary conditions, dependent on antibiotics for their survival and with poor quality fodder, should we be surprised if eating them increases our risks of poor health?

Alzheimer’s disease linked to gut bacteria

Evidence is mounting that there is a relationship between what we eat and dementia.

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Could prebiotics and probiotics have a role in the reduction of the risks of dementia?

I trained as a cognitive scientist/neuroscientist originally because I wanted to know more about how people could lower their risks of developing dementia in general and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in particular. My interest in fermentation comes from exposure to research indicating that gut bacteria is correlated to a range of physical and mental health conditions. That if you have too many or two few of certain types of microbes within your digestive tract, then you are more likely to experience better or worse health.

Imagine my interest then when I receive details of research that stated,

“All the results suggest that AD may begin in the gut.”

This conclusion from Hu, Wang and Jin appeared in their 2016 study Alzheimer’s disease and gut microbiota. Clearly if the results stand up and can be replicated this will change much of what we know about AD, and how it might be treated. There is a growing body of research that has linked AD to diet, it is widely discussed in the vegan and vegetarian communities. But Hu, Wang and Jin take the current thinking further; that AD is not just linked to what we eat per se’ but the prebiotic and probiotic effects of our diet. This research suggests that future treatments for AD are likely to come in the form of dietary or microbiotial interventions. The investigation covers a wide range of evidence, the scientists also draw attention to known links between gastrointestinal diseases and reduced cognitive function as well as Parkinson’s Disease and abnormal levels of gut microbes. If you’re puzzled as to how the gut influences the brain, look into the gut- brain axis.

As a general rule I’m cautious about the findings of academic studies dealing with complex areas of human health like AD. There are such a wide range of factors able to influence wellbeing that to isolate and demonstrate causality is not a simple matter. There is also evidence linking a number of other behaviours (meditation, mindfulness) to reduced risks of neurodegeneration. So that if there is a correlation between both meditation and gut bacteria with lower risks of developing AD, we need to think about how it might work.

Anyone who has been around the meditation community for a while may have noticed a few things about regular meditators. They tend to be relatively calm and their diet and lifestyle tends to be a little different from the mainstream. For example I’ve observed that meditators appear to smoke tobacco and drink alcohol less than the general population. Anecdotally I have found more vegans and vegetarians in the meditation community than my non-meditating friends. You can see from these speculative ideas that the relationship between gut bacteria and AD could hold up even given the evidence linking meditation to lower risks of neurodegeneration.

Whilst this study in isolation does not prove that AD begins in the gut, it signposts further areas of potential research. We now need to look for more specific evidence and ‘joined up’ explanations. It seems that there has never been a better time to think about the benefits of bringing fermented food into your diet and protecting your gut health as far as possible.

 

The human microbiome; helping to prevent obesity, asthma and much more

Your diet can play a significant role in your chances of becoming obese, suffering from asthma or a range of other illnesses.

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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.

Kefir and obesity, reduced weight and your diet

There may be a relationship between kefir and obesity.

kefir and weight loss.
Kefir and weight loss

I’m becoming increasingly convinced of the benefit of fermentation, that enriching beneficial gut bacteria has widespread effects on wellbeing and health. I’m still near the beginning of this journey and learning all the time. I’ve posted a series of articles linked to kefir, not because I’m an expert, but based of the apparent benefits accrued over the last two months from a small glass of kefir each day. I should also say that Maggie has lost a lot of weight over the time she has been drinking kefir, but, she has also been exercising. However weight loss isn’t my only reason for writing about this subject. A few months ago I felt obliged to take a course of antibiotics, I think it was a mistake ( I am aware of the downsides of this kind of medication) but it’s water under the bridge now. The subsequent decline in my overall health was striking. I started to have trouble concentrating and sleeping, I got a cold, suffered from reflux and saw an augmentation in weight.

I didn’t really connect these things with the antibiotics until I noticed that my bowel movements changed significantly. If you are new to the gut bacteria scene you might feel a little uncomfortable around talk about bowel movements, don’t be. A regular healthy bowel movement is one of the signs of a healthy balance in gut bacteria. So when I noticed I wasn’t going to the toilet regularly I though about the possible impact of antibiotics on my gut. I started to take kefir more regularly whilst keeping my usual  prebiotic and probiotic consumption at the same level.  The difference was gradual but pretty much everything started to improve after about five days. Two months later things are back where there were before the antibiotics. I’m much healthier, bowels are back to normal and……..I’ve lost weight without any exercise.

Antibiotics and gut bacteria
Antibiotics and gut bacteria

This isn’t a morality narrative about the harm of antibiotics. I believe antibiotics represent a life saving technology, and in the right place and time are essential. It’s their inappropriate overuse which I think is harmful.

My own anecdote is that I think it took two months to return the state of my gut bacteria to somewhere like normal, and I am a daily consumer of natural prebiotics and probiotics. In all of this story things pretty much fitted my modest understanding of the underlying science except the weight loss. I know that lack of diversity in gut bacteria is correlated with obesity generally but I hadn’t come across any research papers linking kefir to weight loss. If you can improve your gut health and pull your body weight closer to its optimum level this has to be a win-win. So I started to look through the scientific literature. The most recent research is featured here.

Commercial v traditional kefir for weight loss; which is best?

Are their differences in traditional and commercial kefir?

kefir and weight loss.
Kefir and weight loss

This is the second part of the feature, you’ll find part one here.

Despite my scientific training, regular followers of my blogs will have realized I have an established scepticism for extravagant scientific claims. I am a fan of science generally but feel the need to maintain a discriminating eye and treat each scientific claim on its merits. However a recent study into the relationship between kefir and obesity has been worth a closer look.

In a research paper titled Traditional kefir reduces weight gain and improves plasma and liver lipid profiles more successfully than a commercial equivalent in a mouse model of obesity, Bourrie, Cotter and Willing found that kefir appeared able to meditate metabolic health. This study compared the ability of traditional with commercially produced kefir to mediate mouse weight gain, plasma cholesterol, and liver triglycerides. Four traditional and one commercially available kefirs were used in the experiment. Commercial kefir was shown to have no beneficial effect whilst two of the traditional kefirs demonstrated a reduction in the rate of weight gain and increase in blood cholesterol. This was (as far as I know) the first ever study comparing mass produced with traditionally produced kefir, so the research must be regarded as preliminary. It was a study with mice so the extent to which results can be generalised to humans is uncertain.

Traditional kefir may contain a greater diversity of bacteria and yeast

The research concluded that when also considered in relation to the modulation of the gut microbiome, traditional kefir has the potential to mediate obesity through the improvement to metabolic dysfunction.

The report also explained that different forms of traditional kefir do not generate identical microbial populations. It is assumed that this could be linked to variable health benefits. Further that whilst Lactobacillus, Lactococcus, and Leuconostoc would be expected to be found in most forms of kefir, acetic acid bacteria was not found in a majority of commercial products. Research has also suggested that traditional kefir possesses highly complex fungal communities (including, S. cerevisiae, Pichia fermentans, Kazachastania unispora, and Kluyveromyces marxianus and lactis) not always found in commercial products.

In conclusion, three take home points:

  • This is preliminary research, it’s early days!
  • Traditional kefir may support improved cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism.
  • Traditional kefir appear to offer a much greater microbial diversity to the host than commercially produced kefir.

Understanding fermentation and health

What is fermentation and how is it related to health and well being?

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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?

Understanding gut health

A basic guide to gut health, key terms defined and explained.

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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.