A Globe in Crisis: The Obesity Epidemic and the Microbes that could stop it

Our current global community is in the throes of great health change, and not for the better. Obesity is on the rise, and it’s not just in the oft talked about U.S. of A. The rise in the number of people with obesity is now reaching epidemic proportions, but that does not mean we’re all doomed. Science continues to strive to find the various keys to a slimmer waistline and now they may have a new ally: the microbes your gut plays host to.

Digestive System Problems

            The 2013 work of Emmanuelle Le Chatelier and Co. at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in France examined the microbiomes (the microbial “communities”) of 123 non-obese and 169 obese Danish individuals. The concluded that “individuals with a low bacterial richness (23% of the population) are characterized by more marked overall adiposity, insulin resistance and dyslipidaemia and a more pronounced inflammatory phenotype when compared with high bacterial richness individuals”. This means that those with a lower bacterial richness gained more weight over time, and were more likely to be obese. While their findings technically only apply to the white population, it is still a potentially invaluable insight into the identification of those individuals who might be at an increased risk of fatal weight-based diseases and health complications.

Dr. Chatelier’s cohorts at the INRA (this time lead by Aurelie Cotillard) decided to examine how dietary intervention might impact microbial gene richness—rather than just look at the impact of gene richness on overall health (as Chatelier had). Cotillard and her team noted that the make-up of your microbiome can affect the efficacy of your body’s ability to harvest energy from its food. If your microbiome can affect how well you digest, perhaps then what you digest can affect your microbiome. It turns it can– Cotillard and Co. concluded that “Dietary intervention improves low gene richness and clinical phenotypes… [Thus] Low gene richness may therefore have predictive potential for the efficacy of intervention”. Essentially, diet can help alter your microbiome composition (along with your phenotype or outward appearance—think going from heavy to thin) but it’s not as “simple a fix” as just eating better.

So you’re considering attempting to change the composition of your gut, what strains should you be aiming for anyway? Well, it depends on what you’re after. If you’re a stress eater you may want to seek out B. animalis, S. thermophilus and L. bulgaricus. Just ¼ of a cup of unsweetened yogurt enriched with these strains, eaten daily for a month, can promote “brain activity that’s associated with greater emotional stability” according to research conducted at UCLA school of medicine. Researcher’s best guess is that these strains promote an increase in serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter responsible for reducing anxiety. While you shouldn’t expect a dramatic change in mood, do expect a steady alteration over time.

If you’re looking less to curb mood-based eating and more on brain enhancement, try eating more M. vaccae—at least according to the publication known as Behavioral Processes. This particular strain has been shown to also boost serotonin levels which is also responsible for memory and concentration. Mice given some peanut butter with the spores mixed in were able to navigate a maze twice as fast as their non-dosed counterparts—and results last for a week after exposure. Perhaps you’re hoping to curb those ‘toxic’ cravings for sugar and fat—ridding yourself of certain microbes can be beneficial. It turns out they often have the ability to control what you’re jones-ing for, by sending signals to your brain via the vagus nerve (the giant nerve that can be found in your abdomen). And as previously stated, Chatelier at the INRA found that certain microbes digest more efficiently, extracting more calories and effectively causing you to pack on those extra pounds. Avoid cultivating Enterobacter altogether if you can, the work of Dr. Liping Zhao at Tong University found that the presence of this pesky strain in the body of an already obese man (think 385 pounds!) created an inflamed environment that was conducive to insulin resistance and weight gain. Eventually Zhao was able to help the man completely rid himself of the deadly microbiome he had been cultivating through the ingestion of high fiber foods that feed friendly bacteria and the introduction of Bifidobacterium (that strain found in your yogurt!).

Bad strains aren’t just partially responsible for your weight issues, they can also “switch off your immunity”. Heliobacter pylori (a bacteria in the stomach) is the main culprit; the devious strain behind lifelong ulcers and chronic gastritis. 50% of the world’s population harbors this pest in the upper tract of their gut, yet only 1 in 5 people will ever suffer from its effects. Its ability to dominate your system stems from its unique talent: suppressing the body’s normal production of an antimicrobial factor that normally keeps ‘bad strains’ in check. The University of Nottingham found that long term exposure to the bacterium and its special abilities leads to the development of serious conditions strongly linked with gastric cancer.

As if immunological problems weren’t enough, gut bacteria (as microbiomes are colloquially known) have also been linked to mental health issues.  The Great Plains Laboratory just published a paper concluding that the byproducts of clostridia strains were much higher in the urine of autistic children. Once those children were treated with antibiotics known to be effective against clostridia, their symptoms decreased. Those same byproducts were also linked to a teenager who had been diagnosed with severe OCD, ADHD and a variety of digestive issues. Dr. James Greenblatt, the psychiatrist who noted the correlation, treated his patient with a mixed regimen of antibiotics (to kill the clostridia) and probiotics to fuel “good” bacteria. Immediately, byproduct levels in the patient’s blood decreased. Within six months, the patient had a handle on her symptoms, by a year they were gone. One success story may not be enough to sway you, but research has also found a connection between the presence of strep (as a carrier and not as the full blown disease) has been linked to OCD. The condition—when related to strep—is known as PANDA, is usually found in children and considered quite rare. A 10 year old Virginian was incorrectly diagnosed with the condition after a bad bout of strep, but it turned out that his tics and compulsions were the result of having no gut flora at all. Upon receiving probiotic treatments his PANDA symptoms completely disappeared. These byproducts (known as HPHPA) halt the conversion of dopamine to neuroepinephrine leading to a buildup of sorts—which is the cause of many types of “mental agitation”. Those with high levels of this byproduct have more cortisol in their blood (stress hormone) and more BDNF (linked to depression and anxiety). While probiotics aren’t a magic “cure-all” they are useful when paired with managing stress, nutrition and building up the immune system.

What’s in your gut matters, the reason why continues to change every day as new data rolls in, yet the core premise is the same. As such, eating right has never been more worthwhile. Nurture the good bacteria as best you can—because they’re what’ll be nurturing you.

To learn more about eating the right foods for optimal digestion,. visit: www.21DayDigestiveHealthDetox.com