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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 Tom Spector 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.Braving it. Tim Spector, Author provided

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.

Tim Spector. Credit: Tom 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.

Of course! From Science Magazine:

Guts of obese dogs look similar to those of obese people

Obese people have a less diverse array of bacteria living in their guts than do thin people—and the same holds true for dogs. In a new study, researchers fed seven beagles unrestricted amounts of food for 6 months, during which each dog gained an average of 4.93 kilograms—about 67% of their initial average weight of 7.37 kilograms. The investigators fed another seven beagles controlled food portions, and, as expected, this group did not gain weight.

When the researchers examined the fecal samples collected from both groups after 6 months, they found that the guts of obese beagles contained a smaller diversity of bacteria than those of the other dogs. What’s more, microbes from the phylum Firmicutes were the predominant group in the lean dogs, whereas Gram-negative bacteria called Proteobacteria were prevalent in the obese group, the team reported online this month in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. The researchers speculate that an abundance of Proteobacteria may lead to an increase in lipopolysaccharide, a major component of the cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria, which has been linked to weight gain in mice. More research is needed to examine what role gut bacteria may play in the development of obesity, however, the authors say.

An interesting small study of the human armpit bacterial community. From Real Clear Science:

Antiperspirants Alter Your Armpit Bacteria and Could Actually Make You Smell Worse

In modern society, antiperspirants are widely hailed as a godsend, dispelling the inconvenient odors wafting from armpits everywhere. But a new study casts doubts on their vaunted position. As it turns out, antiperspirants may actually make you smell worse in the long run.

For 90% of all Americans, slathering on deodorants and antiperspirants is a daily occurrence, a precautionary measure against foul odors and unsightly sweat stains. The odors arise when bacteria living in our armpits break down lipids and amino acids excreted in sweat into more smelly substances. Deodorants employ antimicrobial agents that kill off bacteria, as well as chemicals that replace noxious odors with pleasant aromas. Deodorants that double as antiperspirants, like Degree, Old Spice, and Dove, take the process one step further by physically plugging sweat glands with aluminum-based compounds.

While most of us might only concern ourselves with the dry, aromatic benefits of antiperspirants and deodorants, researchers at the Laboratory of Microbial Ecology and Technology at the University of Ghent in Belgium are more interested in the effects on bacteria. Billions of bacteria dwell in the "rain forests" under our arms, and the substances we don are mucking with their habitats!

To uncover how deodorants and antiperspirants affect armpit bacteria, Chris Callewaert, a Ph.D student specializing in microbial ecology, and a team of researchers recruited eight subjects for a task a great many people (and especially their friends) might deem unbearable: Six males and two females pledged not to use deodorant or antiperspirant for an entire month. Specifically, four subjects stopped using their deodorants and another four stopped using their antiperspirant deodorant. (Most antiperspirants are also deodorants. See image below for an example.) Another control subject who did not regularly use either was asked to use deodorant for a month. The duration was chosen because it takes approximately 28 days for a new layer of skin cells to form.

The researchers analyzed the diversity and abundance of subjects' armpit bacteria at various timepoints before they stopped using antiperspirant, during the period of abstaining from antiperspirant, and for a few weeks after resuming the use of antiperspirant. Switching hygiene habits plainly altered the armpit bacterial communities of every subject. Since no two armpits and their resident bacteria are identical, it was difficult to pinpoint precise changes brought about by deodorants or antiperspirants, but one clear trend did materialize: antiperspirants resulted in a clear increase of Actinobacteria.

You might not recognize the name of Actinobacteria, but chances are, you've smelled them. Dominated by Corynebacterium, they are the major instigators of noxious armpit odor. Other microbes that inhabit the armpit, like Firmicutes and Staphylococcus, don't produce odors as quickly, nor are those odors nearly as pungent.

Callewaert believes the aluminum compounds in antiperspirants may be to blame, killing off "good," less smelly bacteria and allowing "bad" bacteria to dominate. His study found that deodorants which lack these sweat-blocking antiperspirant compounds are actually linked to a slight decrease of stinky Actinobacteria.

Though antiperspirants and deodorants are widely used, they are only a temporary fix."The measures we utilize today do not take away the initial source: the odor causing bacteria," Callewaert told RealClearScience. "Deodorants only mask unpleasant odors. We can do better than that. The follow up of this research is finding better solutions."

And Callewaert is already working on one: "armpit bacterial transplantation"."We take away the bad bacteria from the armpit of somebody with a body odor, and replace it with the good bacteria of a relative who doesn't have a body odor," he explained."So far we have helped over 15 people. For most subjects it brings immediate improvements. Most of them on a permanent time scale, although there are also people who suffer again from a body odor after some months."

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.

The study talked specifically about 3 types of bacteria that were different among the groups (severely obese, diabetics, healthy) studied: Firmicutes, Bifidobacteria, Clostridium leptum. From Science Daily:

Gut microbe levels are linked to type 2 diabetes and obesity

People with Type 2 diabetes or obesity have changes in the composition of their intestinal micro-organisms -- called the gut microbiota -- that healthy people do not have, researchers from Turkey have found.

The study lends support to other recent reports that have found an association between specific bacterial species in the human digestive system and obesity and diabetes, according to lead investigator Yalcin Basaran, MD, an endocrinologist from Gulhane Military Medical Academy School of Medicine, Ankara, Turkey.

The human digestive system contains an estimated 10 trillion to 100 trillion bacteria and other microscopic organisms, with each person housing at least 160 different species of organisms, according to Basaran. 

Basaran and his fellow researchers sought to identify the relationship between the gut microbe composition and obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Their study included 27 severely obese adults (20 men and seven women) whose body mass index, or BMI, exceeded 35 kg/m2, as well as 26 adults (18 men and eight women) with newly diagnosed Type 2 diabetes and 28 healthy control subjects (22 men and six women). 

Fecal analysis using a molecular biology technique showed that several of the most common types of bacteria in the gut were present at considerably lower levels in the obese and diabetic groups, compared with healthy controls. These reductions ranged from 4.2 to 12.5 percent in the obese patients and 10 to 11.5 percent in the diabetic patients, Basaran reported.

"Manipulation of intestinal bacteria could offer a new approach to manage obesity and Type 2 diabetes."