Gut health, gut flora and microbiome, what does it all mean?
We turned to our gut microbiome expert Miguel Toribio-Mateas for guidance and the role of your gut flora in health and disease. Miguel is one of the leading microbiome researchers in the UK with specialist focus on the relationship between gut bacteria and brain health.
“Your gut flora as the gatekeeper of your health”
Trillions of bacteria live in your gastrointestinal system. Think of the gut as an ecosystem akin to a garden. And just like your garden hosts a variety of plants, from weeds to beautiful fruit-bearing trees, and provides cover for a number of animals, your gut flora isn’t only made up of bacteria but also of yeast and other microbes which are in constant flux. Some come and go, some stay all the time, colonising your gut but fluctuating in numbers according to the foods you eat. Emerging science also points to how the types of microorganisms that inhabit your gut may change depending on any medical conditions you may live with. For example, people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes (type 2) or chronic fatigue syndrome may have specific signatures to their microbiome.
In fact, obesity, diabetes (type 2), and inflammatory bowel conditions such as Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis (known as IBD, where D stands for “disease”) all have something in common, they are characterised by reduced microbial diversity. Going back to that garden analogy, having lower microbial diversity could be seen as having a garden where most of your plants are the same. They could be healthy plants, but the garden wouldn’t be terribly exciting, so it wouldn’t attract a variety of insects, snails, frogs or birds wanting to live in it. When the microbial diversity of your gut is low, a narrower spectrum of microbes will be producing a narrower spectrum of beneficial substances that benefit the rest of the body. I am referring to short chain fatty acids, for example. These are molecules that your gut bacteria produce when you eat fibre-rich foods.
“But your gut is not like Vegas. What happens in the gut, doesn’t stay in the gut.”
These short chain fatty acids are taken to other organs by the blood and can affect the health of a whole bunch of body systems. And if you think that food can either be fertiliser or a super powerful weedkiller for the garden that is your gut, you hold the power to either feed or poison that ecosystem every time you have a meal.
I often see us as cavemen and cavewomen living in a sci-fi world. We still share 99.9% of the genetic characteristics of our primal ancestors, but we’re living a modern lifestyle that our gut microbiota has a hard time adjusting to, and this can contribute to disease development. A noteworthy example of how food choices can have a dramatic effect on your gut “microbiota” (the technical term given by scientists to the whole community of microorganisms that inhabit your gut: bacteria, yeasts, parasites, worms, etc.) is the use of artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers, both of which have the potential to diminish microbial diversity, as well as to increase intestinal inflammation and contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome. By contrast, tribes of wandering foragers called Hadza, living in Western Tanzania, eat a diet of roots, berries, and game. These modern-day hunter–gatherers have some of the highest microbial diversity in record for any population in the world. Perhaps it is not surprising that they don’t normally need to take antibiotics, some of the most intensely disrupting substances for the microbial ecosystem. And perhaps because of that too they have immune systems and livers that are very resilient and allows them to be exposed to a lot more dirt than a Westerner without getting ill.
A beautiful garden as a centrepiece of a complex web of interactions
Your gut microbiota sits at the centre of a complex web of cables that connect all systems in the body, including your nervous system (and your brain as part of it), your immune system, your cardiovascular system, and even your skin. The types and numbers of microbes living in your gut have a profound role in the development of the lymphatic (or lymphoid) tissue that is part of the immune system in the gut. Depending on how diverse your gut bacteria are your immune system will be more or less likely to be constantly “on guard”. In fact, there are distinct changes in gut flora in autoimmunity, and those with autoimmune conditions can benefit the most from working on their conditions by nourishing the gut with a wide spectrum of brightly-coloured, fibre-rich plant foods that are likely to promote microbial diversity. Your gut microbiota also affects the development and maintenance of a healthy gut-endocrine (enteroendocrine) system. In fact, having a good spread of bacteria in your gut has been shown to make you more sensitive to insulin, the hormone that manages blood sugar levels. And being more sensitive to insulin can only be good, as having too much of it pumped into your blood on a regular basis can be one of the contributing factors to diabetes (type 2) as well as to overweight and obesity.
Certain types of bacteria, like a cute little bug called Akkermansia muciniphila, are more readily seen in those people who are able to keep a lean body with less fat and more muscle. That’s why it’s been dubbed “the skinny microbe”. Akkermansia loves not only fibre, but fibrous foods that are rich in polyphenols, natural substances that are normally present in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables. Akkermansia loves polyphenols from pomegranates and red berry-type fruits, like cranberries and red grapes. You are endowed with these keys that open the locks in nutrients so that you get them freed into your system and you can feed on them. These keys are called enzymes. Microbes like Akkermansia have got their own keys that enable you to get access to nutrients that you could have never got access to as a human, so that’s the exchange that the lovely Akkermansia is engaging with you on as a thank you for feeding it some juicy pomegranate seeds. These is the kind of more sophisticated course of action you would be able to follow if you knew that your Akkermansia levels were low and you wanted to lose body fat, and just one of the many examples of how you could use knowledge about your gut flora to your advantage.
I’ll be covering more types of bacteria and how you can feed them the foods that make them thrive here on Emme.
Miguel Toribio-Mateas brings to our expert panel over 15 years of clinical experience in the use of microbiome tests. Alongside this, he also has a longstanding background in health technology and product development.
With degrees in systems complexity, nutritional medicine and clinical neuroscience and a doctorate in gut microbiome and mental health. Achieving a Santander Universities “Work-Based Learning Award” scholarship, Miguel’s academic and professional profile make him the indisputable gut microbiome and brain health authority.
Miguel is currently the Head of Research and Development at the UK’s leading kefir manufacturer, Chuckling Goat. He is also involved in ongoing clinical research on the microbiome and mental wellbeing at the London-Agri Food Innovation Clinic, a research unit hosted at the School of Applied Sciences of London South Bank University, supported by a grant from the European Regional Development Fund.
Miguel also sits on the steering committee of the Primary-Care and Community Neurology Society and brings to our expert panel over 15 years of clinical experience in the use of microbiome tests. Alongside this, he also has a longstanding background in health technology and product development.