Thursday, April 17, 2014

Your own private microbiome

You can stop worrying about your gut flora. In case you were.

It is still true that what we eat helps to determine the composition of the bacteria living in our guts, that some gut bacteria break down food more efficiently, which may encourage weight gain, while others help strengthen our immune system, protecting us from being colonized by harmful bacteria.

Researchers keep discovering new and important functions of the human microbiome -- the communities of trillions of friendly bacteria that live all over us (no squirming, please!) -- and, in particular, our gut microbiome.

The findings have generated both excitement about potential explanations for both weight control and intestinal diseases and calls for research on new roles for our gut flora. They have also caused concern that perhaps we need to be consuming probiotic dietary supplements to "improve" or change our gut flora, or to lose weight.

Don't Panic: if you are already healthy, then new research suggests you needn't worry. But read on anyway!

Scientists at the University of Michigan in the US researching our microbiomes have found that there is no single healthy microbiome.

Yea! Affirmation time!

Each of us supports a unique and diverse collection of bacteria, which is the product of our unique and diverse life histories.

Differences in gender and environment, as well as the food and medicines we consume, all interact to produce a unique microbiome, and just because yours might be different from mine or some Olympic athlete's, doesn't mean it is unhealthy. Here is the lead scientist, Patrick Schloss, describing the research and what his team has found:

Video care of University of Michigan

In case reading so much online has rendered you too distracted to pay attention to 4 1/2 straight minutes of watching video, here are their other main findings:
  • People's microbiomes vary, but the bacteria can usually be grouped into categories (i.e. several types of mouth bacteria, several types of gut bacteria, several types of behind-they ear bacteria...). 
  • The types at some locations on or in the body can predict the types at other locations (so, a certain mouth bacteria community would predict what is living in your gut), even though they are not the same.
  • The bacteria community types at several sites on/in the body are associated with people's gender, whether they were breastfed as infants, and their level of education.
  • Community types in the mouth were most changeable, whereas those in the vagina and gut were the most stable.

What's in it for you and your fitness?  Better understanding how these types of bacterial communities develop and change should help doctors evaluate your disease risk and allow them to personalize treatment for your specific community type(s).

These findings are published in this week's Nature magazine. And if you, like many medical and microbiological scientists, are fascinated by gut microflora, you might enjoy the gut microbiota watch site.

(If you're not, try one of these on "the busy trap" or on becoming more effective, rather than more efficient, which have nothing to do with gut flora!)

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