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Amusing but also scary. The negative effects on the gut microbes of one person consuming an all fast food diet for 10 days occurred very quickly, and his gut microbes did not recover even 2 weeks after the fast food diet ended. Biggest problem seemed to be loss of gut diversity - about 40% of his gut bacterial species. Loss of gut diversity is considered a sign of ill health. Written by Tim Spector, with Tom Spector's assistance, from The Conversation:

Your gut bacteria don’t like junk food – even if you do

When Morgan Spurlock famously spent a month eating large portions of McDonalds for the purposes of his documentary Supersize Me, he gained weight, damaged his liver and claimed to have suffered addictive withdrawal symptoms. This was popularly attributed to the toxic mix of carbs and fat plus the added chemicals and preservatives in junk foods. But could there be another explanation?

We may have forgotten others who really don’t enjoy fast food. These are the poor creatures that live in the dark in our guts. These are the hundred trillion microbes that outnumber our total human cells ten to one and digest our food, provide many vitamins and nutrients and keep us healthy. 

For the sake of science and research for my book The Diet Myth, I have been experimenting with several unusual diets and recorded their effects on my gut microbes...My son Tom, a final year student of genetics at the University of Aberystwyth suggested an additional crucial experiment: to track the microbes as they changed from an average western diet to an intensive fast food diet for over a week.

I wasn’t the ideal subject since I was no longer on an average diet, but Tom, who like most students enjoyed his fast food, was. So he agreed to be the guinea pig on the basis that I paid for all his meals and he could analyse and write up his results for his dissertation. The plan was to eat all his meals at the local McDonalds for ten days. He was able to eat either a Big Mac or Chicken nuggets, plus fries and Coke. For extra vitamins he was allowed beer and crisps in the evening. He would collect poo samples before, during and after his diet and send them to three different labs to check consistency.

While it was clear the intensive diet had made him feel temporarily unwell, we had to wait a few months for the results to arrive back....They all told the same story: Tom’s community of gut microbes (called a microbiome) had been devastated.

Tom’s gut had seen massive shifts in his common microbe groups for reasons that are still unclear. Firmicutes were replaced with Bacteroidetes as the dominant type, while friendly bifidobacteria that suppress inflammation halved. However the clearest marker of an unhealthy gut is losing species diversity and after just a few days Tom had lost an estimated 1,400 species – nearly 40% of his total. The changes persisted and even two weeks after the diet his microbes had not recovered. Loss of diversity is a universal signal of ill health in the guts of obese and diabetic people and triggers a range of immunity problems in lab mice.

That junk food is bad for you is not news, but knowing that they decimate our gut microbes to such an extent and so quickly is worrying...We rely on our bacteria to produce much of our essential nutrients and vitamins while they rely on us eating plants and fruits to provide them with energy and to produce healthy chemicals which keep our immune system working normally.

We are unlikely to stop people eating fast food, but the devastating effects on our microbes and our long term health could possibly be mitigated if we also eat foods which our microbes love like probiotics (yogurts), root vegetables, nuts, olives and high-fibre foods. What they seem to crave, above all else, is food diversity and a slice of gherkin in the burger just isn’t enough.

Tom Spector. Credit: Tim Spector

Nice write-up of how what happens from the type of birth (vaginal vs cesarean) affects the baby's microbiome (community of microbes). Remember, it is very complicated and much is still unknown. (UPDATE: see January 16, 2015 post discussing research by Dr. Dominguez-Bello who is conducting a study in which babies born via C-section are immediately swabbed with their mother's vaginal secretions; these babies will then be followed for years). From Gastroenterology and Endoscopy News:

Delivery Mode Alters Newborn’s First Bacterial Exposure

 A baby’s first exposure to bacteria varies by the method of delivery, researchers have foundThese differences could have health implications later in life, according to an emerging body of evidence that suggests gut bacteria may be important to the development of a healthy immune system (Arrieta MC et al.Front Immunol 2014;5:427). For example, evidence shows that alterations in gut bacteria early in life may increase the incidence of allergies later on (Bendiks M, Kopp MV. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep 2013;13:487-494).

In the new study, presented at the 2014 annual meeting of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, a group at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in Aurora, compared oropharyngeal aspirates taken from 12 infants born by cesarean delivery and 11 born vaginally, and their bacterial content by sequencing the bacterial genes in the samples (abstract 7). Samples taken from the mothers’ vaginal and rectal areas, and samples of the infants’ stool, were also analyzed for bacterial genes.

Bacteria in aspirates from newborns delivered vaginally were more similar to the bacteria found in samples from their mothers than the aspirates from infants born by cesarean delivery, the investigators found. Infants born vaginally had higher numbers of firmicutes (62.6% vs. 30.1%; P=0.0013), particularly lactobacilli typically found in the vagina.

Aspirates from infants born by cesarean delivery, in contrast, had higher levels of Actinobacteria (20.1% vs. 3.8%; P=0.045), which are found on the skin. Stool samples from vaginally delivered newborns also had greater numbers of Bacteroidetes than stool samples from infants born by cesarean delivery. This difference persisted through six weeks of life, the researchers said.

David Brumbaugh, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in Aurora, said the finding of fewer Bacteroidetes in cesarean newborns is potentially alarming. Studies of mice raised in sterile conditions have shown that exposure to a specific type of Bacteroidetes, Bacteroides fragilis, suppresses the animals’ inflammatory response (Mazmanian SK et al. Nature 2008;453:620-625), he said. 

“The fact that this bacteria never gets established early in life [in babies born by cesarean delivery] is concerning,” he said. Some studies have suggested that infants born by cesarean delivery may be at greater risk for developing conditions such as asthma, type 1 diabetes and celiac disease (Cho CE, Norman M. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2013;208:249-254). But not all studies have supported such risks; other studies suggest that genetic factors or the reason for the cesarean delivery itself may contribute to disease later in the child’s life (Almqvist C et al.Clin Exp Allergy 2012;42:1369-1376).

Jean-Eric Ghia, PhD, assistant professor of immunology and internal medicine at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, Canada, said the findings add to a body of evidence suggesting that gut bacterial colonization is affected by mode of delivery, and these altered gut bacteria might contribute to immune system–related disease later in life (Neu J, Rushing J.Clin Perinatol 2011;38:321-331). “The first colonization of the gut happens when the baby comes out,” he said. But he noted that long-term studies are needed to assess the effect of these gut differences on health in the long term. He noted that a multitude of exposures before and after birth can also influence gut biota (Munyaka PM et al. Front Pediatr. doi:10.3389/fped.2014.00109 [published online October 9, 2014]). “It’s really, really complicated,” he said.

Two related articles, the first from a month ago, but both discuss eating fresh foods of summer and the effect on the microbiota. From Gut Microbiota Worldwatch:

Seasonal diet changes affect the composition of our gut microbiota

The mix of bacteria that live in our gut changes throughout the year, to match the food we eat in every specific season. For example, bacteria that process fresh fruit and vegetables are more abundant in the summer, and those that process fats are mode abundant in winter times. A group of scientists at the University of Chicago has found evidence of this seasonal shift in the gut flora, by studying the remote Hutterite population, in North America. The traditional diet and common meals of this community have allowed researchers to study the effect of one common diet in a large population over a long period of time.

Hutterites live in communal farms (colonies) and eat meals in common dining rooms, using traditional recipes that have been relatively stable over time and between colonies. They have little contact with the world outside their colonies, which translates into a very homogeneous genetic pool. Sixty Hutterites from six colonies answered questionnaires about what they ate over the course of a year. During the same period, scientists sampled their stool periodically, to find the genetic sequences of bacteria contained in their gut.

The Hutterites’ diet is relatively stable, except that in summer they eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, and in winter they eat less, and turn to frozen or canned food. Remarkably, their gut flora responded to these changes with massive modification in the abundance of certain bacteria. For example, during summer Bacteroidetes were more abundant: this group of bacteria contain complex carbohydrate digesters, which may be at work in processing fresh fruit and vegetables.

On the other hand Actinobacteria increased in winter: these microbes are associated with processing fat, and with a decreased content of fibre in food. Researchers also found seasonal shifts in other types of bacteria, whose associations with food are still unknown. Notably, the trends were almost identical in all six colonies, possibly a result of a very homogenous lifestyle carried on in a very similar environment.

Although Hutterites live in a relatively isolated way, they use technology and medicine, which makes their lifestyle closer to the general population than that of other more traditional communities. That is why the authors believe that these results may be extended to the general population.

This healthy living article promotes eating fresh fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, blueberries, asparagus, and leeks) as good for the gut microbiome. From Huffington Post:

4 Summer Foods That Can Help Trim Your Waist

We know so little about the viruses in the human microbiome that a study just reported a newly discovered gut virus found in most of the world's population. From Medical Xpress:

Newly discovered gut virus lives in half the world's population

Odds are, there's a virus living inside your gut that has gone undetected by scientists for decades. A new study led by researchers at San Diego State University has found that more than half the world's population is host to a newly described virus, named crAssphage, which infects one of the most common types of gut bacteria, Bacteroidetes. This phylum of bacteria is thought to be connected with obesity, diabetes and other gut-related diseases.

The fact that it's so widespread indicates that it probably isn't a particularly young virus, either. "We've basically found it in every population we've looked at," Edwards said. "As far as we can tell, it's as old as humans are." He and his team named the virus crAssphage, after the cross-assembly software program used to discover it.

Some of the proteins in crAssphage's DNA are similar to those found in other well-described viruses. That allowed Edwards' team to determine that their novel virus is one known as a bacteriophage, which infects and replicates inside bacteria—and using innovative bioinformatic techniques, they predicted that this particular bacteriophage proliferates by infecting a common phylum of gut bacteria known as Bacteriodetes.

 Further details about crAssphage have been difficult to come by. It's unknown how the virus is transmitted, but the fact that it was not found in very young infants' fecal samples suggests that it is not passed along maternally, but acquired during childhood.

I keep overhearing misguided statements like these all the time: that somehow any and all probiotic (beneficial) bacteria offered for sale, whether in foods such as yogurt, or in probiotic capsules, are wonderful and beneficial, and will reseed your gut as well as do all sorts of miraculous things for your health. And while in reality, there are many, many bacterial species living in a healthy person's gut, it's the same few species that seem to be offered everywhere.

But if you look at the scientific research for even a few minutes, you realize that NO, we actually know very little about the health benefits of these bacteria species now in stores, and that all the claims out there don't have evidence backing them up. Perhaps taking megadoses of certain bacteria even has some negative effects. Yes, Lactobacillus species are generally considered beneficial by scientists. But even in the Lactobacillus family, there are many more types than the few now available in stores. For example. I can not find Lactobacillus sakei (which is found in kimchi and we use to successfully treat sinusitis - see Sinusitis Treatment link) in any store at this time.

Another problem is that sometimes you don't even get the desired bacteria that has been added to the food or cosmetic. For example, this occurs when some Lactobacillus or other bacteria are added to yogurt or some other food, but then the food is pasteurized, which kills off the bacteria. Duh...This is why I liked the following  opinion piece by Julianne Wyrick. From Scientific American:

Are probiotics helping you?

Consuming probiotics – also know as “good” bacteria – via supplements or yogurt has been popularized as a way to maintain gut health. While taking a daily dose of probiotics may not be harming you, it also may not be helping. The idea that every probiotic is good for every disease or condition is oversimplified, according to Catherine Lozupone, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Lozupone spoke on a panel about the human microbiome, or the bacteria that reside in and on our bodies, that I attended at the Association of Health Care Journalists Conference last month. The panel touched on misconceptions related to probiotics, so I gave Lozupone a call post-conference to learn more.

One misconception Lozupone brought up was the idea that probiotic supplements should be used for “reseeding the good bacteria” missing in a person’s gut. Probiotic supplements often only contain a few species of bacteria, whereas a healthy gut generally has hundreds of species. In addition, the microbes that are abundant in a healthy gut are often different than those found in many supplements. A healthy gut is mostly composed of bacterial species that fall within a two different groups of bacteria: the phyla Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. One group of bacteria commonly found in probiotics is known as Lactobacillus. While Lactobacillus is a type of Firmicute, it isn’t a type of Firmicute that is typically found in great abundance in a healthy adult gut, according to Lozupone. While Lactobacillus may be helpful for some people in some situations, the idea that everyone needs to repopulate their gut with this “good” bacteria is an overgeneralization.

“I think probiotics have a ton of potential, but different bacteria are going to do different things in different contexts,” Lozupone said. “This notion [of] ‘oh just reseed the good bacteria … they’re good for you’ is definitely very oversimplified.”

But while some general probiotic health claims are ahead of the research, studies do suggest that particular types of probiotic bacteria have potential for specific uses.

For example, Lozupone noted some rodent studies suggest certain microbes might mitigate certain effects of a high-fat diet, which could be helpful to treating obesity and associated health problems.

“There’s just lots of different contexts where the microbiome has been shown to be important,” Lozupone said. Going forward, researchers hope to not only find microbes that have health effects, but also understand why they have these effects. If you’re interested in keeping track of the current research into our body’s bacteria, keep your eye on the NIH’s Human Microbiome Project, an international effort to study the role of the body’s bacteria in our health.