Reducing the diversity of bacteria in our microbiome has a detrimental effect on health, and can lead to inflammation and other chronic health conditions.
One intriguing and potentially important area of research around the microbiome is in obesity.
Increasing evidence places gut microbiota as important modulators of the crosstalk between diet and development of obesity and metabolic dysfunction.
The revolution has begun. A revolution in wellness and consumer products that is opening a new approach toward human health. Perhaps This is an inflection point in the evolution of health and nutrition.
Change the Microbiome, Change Health
Today more credible, “establishment” research is discovering the role of the human microbiome in disease, and how changing the bacterial ecosystem can have profound benefits in health and wellness. Quite simply, our bacterial make-up can change our physiology, and we have the capability to identify specific strains of bacteria that can produce these targeted effects.
With the adoption of DNA sequencing, a new world has opened, allowing researchers to identify specific strains of bacteria. Combined with the informatics revolution, mass data gathering projects such as The Human Food Project, Human Microbiome Project and others are mapping the role of the diverse microbial environment to changes in health.
When looking at the diversity of bacteria in the microbiome of isolated humans who have had little to no contact with “Western society,” researchers can compare against other cultural and geographic populations. The findings suggest that what we eat and our lifestyle characteristics play a significant role in our health. Reducing the diversity of bacteria in our microbiome has a detrimental effect on our health.
Our diet and lifestyle affect the make-up of our microbiome. Processed foods and loss of biodiversity in the diet are changing the microbiome of many populations; there is truth to the “western diet/chronic disease” link. Processed foods and the so-called “Western diet” remove many phytonutrients heretofore thought to be unimportant. Today, our diet has dramatically reduced the biodiversity of foods we grow and eat. This reduced biodiversity dramatically diminishes the diversity of the bacteria species in our gut, as each bacteria species uses certain foods to proliferate.
Researchers are finding a link between certain strains of bacteria (or lack thereof) and a propensity toward chronic diseases. We’ve known for some time that microbes perform essential functions in the body such as digesting food and synthesizing nutrients. But we are now learning that unique bacterial strains are linked to specific metabolic functions,1 and the gut microbes to a wide range of health conditions such as obesity,2,3 cardiovascular disease (CVD),4,5 high blood pressure6,7 and even autism,8 anxiety and depression.9,10,11 Some species are demonstrating an ability to increase physical performance. The bottom line is the human microbiome has profound consequences for our health—something we didn’t fully understand until recently.
One of the most intriguing and potentially important areas of research is in obesity. Rob Knight, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California San Diego, explains, “I can tell you with 90 percent certainty if you’re lean or obese based on your microbiome. If I was going on human genes alone, the accuracy would be 57 percent.” Knight, a member of the Steering Committee of the Earth Microbiome Project and co-founder of the American Gut Project, cited work12 by Jeffrey Gordon and his group at Washington University in St. Louis, which reported microbial populations in the gut are different between obese and lean people, and that when the obese people lost weight their microflora reverted to that observed in a lean person, suggesting that obesity may have a microbial component.
It’s important to remember the bacterial make-up of our gut is interacting with us in ways that drive our biology. As bacteria eat food, they secrete metabolites and by-products that affect hormones and a host of biological activity including metabolism. Perhaps we should question whether it’s us who crave the unhealthy foods, or our bacteria. But we are starting to see that by changing the make-up of bacteria in our gut, we can reduce the cravings for these “bad” foods and certainly the metabolic effects they produce.
Since so much of the cells in our body are bacterial, and these bacteria cells proliferate based upon the foods they prefer, many scientists are speculating the Western diet is accelerating the growth of “bad” bacteria species, which compete against “good” bacteria. For example, with an abundance of simple carbohydrates and saturated fats, certain bacteria gain an advantage and overpopulate the gut, limiting the growth of more healthy bacteria, and perpetuating the biological signals to eat more of the same.
Understanding that bacteria from a healthy donor can colonize and treat a sick patient (the most successful treatment of Clostridium difficile [C. diff] is a process known as fecal microbiota transplant), and noticing that the bacterial make up of overweight people is significantly different than those who are “thin,” scientists used germ-free mice to study how the microbiome can affect weight and obesity.12 The objective was to identify strains that affect weight gain and metabolism. They showed microbial changes encourage increased consumption of “bad” types of foods.
Scientists believe the widespread use of antibiotics may be playing a significant role in exacerbating the obesity epidemic. Previous work has already established a difference in the gut bacteria of lean and overweight people, but the latest research is lending support to the controversial idea that bacteria-killing antibiotics may be playing a role in predisposing some people to being fat.
Diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome are multifactorial diseases dependent on a complex interaction of host genetics, diet and other environmental factors. Increasing evidence places gut microbiota as important modulators of the crosstalk between diet and development of obesity and metabolic dysfunction. In addition, host genetics can have important impact on the composition and function of gut microbiota. Indeed, depending on the genetic background of the host, diet and other environmental factors may produce different changes in gut microbiota, have different impacts on host metabolism and create different interactions between the microbiome and the host.
A New Consumer Approach
Accelerating scientific research in the areas of the human microbiome and probiotics is attracting money and leading to greater scientific and commercial value. These initiatives are gaining attention and illustrate the tip of a probiotic iceberg. Furthermore, growing media attention about the role of the microbiome and probiotics is educating the public and changing the narrative about health and wellness.
Consumers are empowered, educated and ready to act on this new approach to health and wellness. In fact, 81 percent of Americans identify probiotics as the most important nutrient to take, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC). This is demonstrated in the accelerating growth of probiotic sales.
The probiotics market is predicted to exceed $64 billion by 2023, according to 2016 data from Global Market Insights. IBISWorld reported global consumption of probiotics is more than three times that of omega-3, making probiotics the most successful functional ingredient in FDM after vitamins and minerals. The market for probiotic food & supplements is already greater than $35 billion in the United States, per Nutrition Business Journal. According to Packaged Facts, probiotics are one of four major trends driving supplement sales. Sales of probiotics were the fastest growing of all supplements in 2014, climbing 22 percent.
About 9 percent of Americans—15.3 million—currently take probiotic supplements, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s (CRN) 2016 Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements. More than 50 percent of supplement shoppers regularly buy probiotics, 22 percent are lapse users and only 27 percent are non-users of probiotic supplements. According to Euromonitor International, sales of probiotic supplements are set to outpace all others throughout 2020.
Since advanced gene sequencing allows us to identify bacterial strains that have specific functional benefit, we can isolate and cultivate these strains. This new revolution opens the door to advanced functionally targeted probiotic products, providing consumers an ability to replenish depleted colonies of specific strains, to proactively bring them into a healthier state of balance. Viva la revolution!
Peter Leighton (email@example.com) is the founding partner of Abunda, an integrated consulting group. Leighton brings 30 years experience in consumer products, nutraceuticals and biotechnology. Responsible for some of the most successful brands on the market, Peter has been a thought leader in the areas of functional foods and science-based nutraceuticals. Leighton has held senior executive positions including vice president of product strategy at Complete Nutrition, CEO at Advana Science, vice president of marketing and product development at Natrol (NTOL), vice president at Galileo Laboratories, vice president of marketing at Metabolife, senior vice president of marketing at Weider Nutrition (WNI) and director of marketing at InterHealth Nutraceuticals.
- Martin FP et al. “Probiotic modulation of symbiotic gut microbial–host metabolic interactions in a humanized microbiome mouse model.” Molecular Systems Biology. 2008;4(1):157.
- Ussar S, Fujisaka S, Kahn C. “Interactions between host genetics and gut microbiome in diabetes and metabolic syndrome.” Mol Metab. 2016;5(9):795-803.
- Ridaura V et al. “Gut microbiota from twins discordant for obesity modulate metabolism in mice.” Science. 2013;341(6150):1241214.
- Wang Z et al. “Non-lethal Inhibition of Gut Microbial Trimethylamine Production for the Treatment of Atherosclerosis.” Cell. 2015;163(7):1585-1595.
- Kwan Chan Y et al. “Probiotic mixture VSL#3 reduce high fat diet induced vascular inflammation and atherosclerosis in ApoE−/− mice.” AMB Express. 2016;6:61.
- Hasegawa H et al. “Effects of telmisartan and losartan on cardiovascular protection in Japanese hypertensive patients.” Hypertension Research. 2011;34:1179–84.
- Khalesi S et al. “Effect of probiotics on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials.” Hypertension. 2014 Oct;64(4):897-903.
- Hsiao E et al. “The microbiota modulates gut physiology and behavioral abnormalities associated with autism.” Cell. 2013;155(7):1451-1463.
- Denou E et al. “The Intestinal Microbiota Determines Mouse Behavior and Brain BDNF Levels.” Gastroenterology. 2011;140(5):S-57.
- Desbonnet L et al. “Effects of the probiotic Bifidobacterium infantis in the maternal separation model of depression.” Neuroscience. 2010 Nov 10;170(4):1179-88.
- McKean J et al. “Probiotics and Subclinical Psychological Symptoms in Healthy Participants: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” J Altern Complement Med. 2017 Apr;23(4):249-258.
- Turnbaugh P et al. “An obesity-associated gut microbiome with increased capacity for energy harvest.” Nature. 2006;444:1027-1031.