Make Friends with Your Gut Microbiota

January 23rd, 2014 in New Science with 4 Comments

Gut microbiota 1

[Featured image by Michah Lidberg, courtesy Proto by Massachusetts General Hospital]

The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) has exploded our understanding of the microscopic minions that outnumber us 10 to 1. Mavenites, it’s time to make friends with your gut microbiota.  Numerous studies have shown the importance of a healthy, diverse microbial flora in everything from Crohn’s disease to depression.  Here are a few examples:

The Brain-Gut Connection:   An article in the journal Nature, citing mouse and human studies, suggests that microbes have the ability to signal the brain and can impact behavior, and changes in the gut flora have an influence over depression, eating disorders, and compulsive behavior.  One doctor showed that dosing a patient with a probiotic had a significant impact on a patient’s symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  Related studies in mice showed that altering their gut microbiota altered their behavior as well.

Brain Gut Connection

[Illustration by Benjamin Arthur via NPR]

Link to Obesity:  An article released by Science Daily suggests that the more rich and diverse one’s intestinal flora, the less likely they are to develop diabetes or become obese.  When studying the intestinal flora of mice, researchers found that mice with lower diversity of species were more likely to become obese than those that had a rich, diverse intestinal flora.  


[Image courtesy Nothing In Biology Makes Sense]

Vegetarian vs. Animal-Based Diet:  A recent study at Harvard showed that there is a radical shift in the gut flora when diet was switched from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet.  Scientists found that when mice were on an animal-based diet, the organism Bilophila wadsworthia increased.  This organism has been linked to inflammatory bowel syndrome in mice.  On a plant-based diet, microbes fermented carbohydrates and produced butyrate, which has been shown to reduce inflammation.  In the study involving 10 volunteers, there was a radical shift in gut microbiota seen in only 24 hours when subjects switched from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet.  However, the gut flora reverted to its original form when the volunteers went back to their regular diets.

Autism:  Researchers at the California Institute of Technology recently studied the link between autism spectrum disorder and the gut microbiome.  Using a mouse model, researchers were able to treat a “leaky gut” found in individuals with autism by using Bacteriodes fragilis.  Not only was the leaky gut corrected, mice previously exhibiting autistic behaviors showed increased communication with other mice, reduced anxiety, and less likely to engage in repetitive behaviors that characterize autism.

Gut Microbiota 2

[Image courtesy Second Genome]

Cancer:  Researchers at the National Cancer Institute studied the efficacy of chemotherapy drugs in mice with altered gut flora.  They found that mice that were raised germ-free and mice that had their normal gut flora wiped out by antibiotics responded poorly to chemotherapy drugs designed to treat melanoma, lymphoma, and colon cancer.  These mice produced fewer cytokines and had reduced expression of inflammatory genes in response to cancer therapies.  Again, this is a mouse model, but it raises some interesting questions about the necessity of a healthy, diverse gut flora in the success of cancer treatments.

What are we to make of this, Mavenites?  Granted, this is preliminary research, and much of it is in a mouse model, but to me, these studies suggest that the more robust and diverse your gut flora is the better off you are, on many fronts.  We tend to spend a lot of time thinking that germs are “bad” and taking measures to eradicate them.  Yes, there are some baddies out there, but we might want to start to change our way of thinking and embrace the majority of these good guys who actually make your life better.

So what do you do if your gut flora needs a kick-start?  Stay tuned!

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Kelly Cowan

About Kelly Cowan

I’m a mom, teacher, scientist, author and community activist. I work at an open-admissions regional campus of a midwestern university, where I teach microbiology and epidemiology to a lot of pre-health professions students and a few poets and business majors.

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4 Responses

  1. Amy Rogers says:

    Staying tuned. While one can argue about the validity of results of any particular microbiome study, there seems to be little doubt of the general principle: the content of our microbiomes affects our health in large and unexpected ways.

    Our challenge for the coming decades is to figure out the details.

    But I want to know what I should eat NOW!!

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