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That Gut Feeling May Mean More Than You Thought

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 23, 2013

Michael Pollan is always worth reading, and if he wants to tend the wild microbial garden in his gut, it’s worthwhile to explore the why and the how. In his New York Times Magazine article "Some of My Best Friends Are Bacteria." Pollan explains how he came to view himself as a superorganism rather than just one ordinary human being.

He quotes the suggestion of Stanford microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg that we should view the human body as "an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.” We’re only 10 percent human anyway, Pollan writes, adding "For every human cell that is intrinsic to our bodies, there are about 10 resident microbes.” Some of these organisms are harmless, some help our systems function, and a few that are pathogens. Some scientists call this microbial community our "second genome,” and recent research is beginning to change what we think about bacteria and its role in health and illness.

Scientists believe gut microbiota may play an important role in chronic illnesses, obesity, our immune systems and metabolism, as well as our moods and temperament. Even the term immune system may become passé- future scientists may call it the microbial interaction system. Pollan writes that gut bacteria may have a part in the manufacture of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, a hormone that helps regulate growth, moods and multiple functions in the brain and other systems. Several experiments with mice are illustrative. When the microbiome of thin mice is transplanted into fat mice, the fat mice lose weight, independent of calorie intake. Pollan writes that when gut microbes of easy-going, adventurous mice are transplanted into timid, nervous mice, the anxious mice become more relaxed and adventurous. He says lab mice experiments by Jeffrey I. Gordon at Washington University, St. Louis, indicate if metabolism has been disordered by malnutrition, repair may need more than nutrients. It may require changing the gut’s microbial community.

Pollan participated in the American Gut, an open access citizen science project located at the Bio Frontiers Institute at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The project is a chance for people to work with scientists and researchers in labs throughout the U.S. It builds on previous efforts, including the NIH-funded Human Microbiome Project, to learn about the microbes living in and on our bodies. For a fee, volunteers can learn about the trillions of microbes they carry, and contribute to newer understandings of how diet, life style and environment impact our inner microbial worlds. Pollan notes that scientists aren’t yet sure what a gut community should look like, except that just as in other ecological systems, robust biodiversity is healthiest. Click here to sign up.

Some strange paradoxical microbial characters lurk in our guts. Pollan writes that Helicobacter pylori, long vilified for an association with ulcers and stomach cancer, may also have an anti-inflammatory function that helps calm the immune system and as well as helping with appetite regulation that inhibits obesity. Inflammation is believed to have a part in many chronic illnesses. Pollan says microbiologist Martin Blaser, who has studied H pylori for years, thinks it is an endangered species and we may one day regret its loss. Oligosaccharides are another curiosity. An ingredient in human breast milk, they don’t feed a baby but do nurture a gut bacterium that helps the intestines develop a healthy lining.

Pollan asked several scientists how their research findings had changed their own eating habits. Several reported avoiding processed foods with little fiber and many additives, carefully monitoring antibiotic intake, and adding fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut. Few used commercial probiotics, which Pollan notes are largely unregulated so you don’t now exactly what you get when you buy them. Read Pollan’s piece here.

Tags:  bacteria  buscell  complexity matters  health 

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