The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) launched in 2008 as an extension of another ambitious global project—the Human Genome Project. HMP seeks to understand the metagenome (the combined genomes of all the microbes) of 300 healthy people. Five body areas are being sampled: skin, mouth, nose, colon and vagina.
The project is generating a huge amount of scientific research aimed at achieving a better understanding of gut-based microorganisms. As we understand the role and dynamics of these microorganisms (collectively, we can also call them the microbiome), we get to better appreciate their role in maintaining health and in helping to prevent and treat many ailments.
The microbiome helps digest food, regulate the immune system and protect the body from harmful microorganisms. The intimate connection between gut-based bacteria and the brain is also being uncovered. New scientific interpretations to old concepts of gut “think" and gut “feel" are being offered. Emeran Mayer, M.D., Ph.D., discussed this connection and interpretation in detail in his book “The Mind-Gut Connection."
Mayer goes through the history of the earth to explain the phenomenon. Single-celled bacteria found in abundance in the primeval seas had an extremely limited genetic code. That made standalone survival impossible. The harsh conditions of the primeval seas could be overcome only by symbiotically sharing individual microorganism capability, and collectively leveraging that for survival of the ancient microbiota.
The primeval organisms have since disappeared. A new set of microorganisms now reside in the human gut. But the principle mechanism of information exchange between bacteria has endured. Mayer characterized this communication and symbiosis between microbiota to form the basis of the gut mind, which in turn has a huge impact on human health.
Explanations regarding the importance of the gut microbiome to human health and well-being are new. But the association of health and the gut has been known to man since ancient times. Both in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) systems, the role of the gut is central to disease treatment and good health.
The connection of the gut microbiota and diet is leading to spinoff recommendations. In their 2015 book “The Good Gut," Justin and Erica Sonnenburg shared a seven-day microbiota-friendly diet for North Americans. The rich-in-fiber diet is intended to feed the human gut microbiota, as a healthy microbiota is critical to individual health.
The importance of probiotic bacteria in human digestion is now universally accepted. Physicians commonly recommend probiotic foods and other nutraceutical supplements to patients suffering from a variety of ailments. This has helped enhance the brand of this class of nutraceutical products.
But it is the drug and food companies that have leveraged these recommendations. They have created a range of consumer health products. These now have become a major source of revenue for these companies.
Probiotics have now become a household name the world over. We have probiotic yogurts and fermented foods that build the microbiota in the gut. Today, these consumer food products are fully integrated into the healthy food consumption basket of people.
On the other hand, the natural products industry, which is almost exclusively nutraceutical and food-based, continues to struggle. I find this contradictory. The mainstream health care industry has jumped on the health bandwagon and created a mass market for these products.
Pharmaceutical and natural product companies will further leverage the research outcomes from the HMP, and further expand their brands and product profiles in the health food market. The Project is still ongoing. It is an opportunity for the natural products industry to rebrand and redefine its role in the health care sector.
I do not think this will require a major redesign of the natural industry. Today, the natural products industry is investing a lot of sweat and resources to convince consumers that their products and natural commodities are good for their health. Expanding the product and industry beyond the traditional natural product consumer fan base has been a challenge.
The counter narrative presented by the pharmaceutical and medical community is often that the scientific basis of the natural products industry is tenuous. They have leveraged this, and are rapidly occupying the traditional natural products market base.
The industry is trying to collaborate with research institutions, conduct animal trials and bring evidence to support the efficacy of the products they wish to market. Others are innovating and trying to leverage biotechnological solutions to convince consumers of the uniqueness and scientific support of their brands.
Rebranding of natural product lines will entail getting the mindshare of the consumer. The HMP provides the opportunity to make that connection. The association between natural products and the gut is clearly understood by the natural products industry.
A chorus of voices will need to be generated to make that connection. Building the chorus and communication is at the heart of any rebranding. While the industry will need to associate itself with each HMP subproject, writers and journalists will have to add their voices and take it to their fan base. With a bit of effort rebranding, it can be achieved.
Sudhir Ahluwalia (sudhirahluwalia.com) is a business consultant. His experience includes management consulting head of Tata Consultancy Services—an IT outsourcing company in Asia—business advisor to multiple companies, columnist and author of the book “Holy Herbs." Ahluwalia was also a member of the Indian Forest Service.