Why gut microbiome is the key to healthy weight
The word is out – the gut is officially in. And no, this isn’t a free pass to blow out your belly with too many donuts or pints – sorry.
The gut microbiome, aka – the bacteria in our tummies and bowel is what’s having a moment. And yes, it’s a slightly unsavoury topic but it’s also the very thing that’s going to keep you slim.
And really, flat bellies are the ultimate goal right? Well, they should be anyway. Currently in Australia our waistlines are growing faster than our love of gourmet burgers and deep-fried sweet potato fries… at epic speed and proportions.
A recent Australian Bureau of Statistics survey found the average Australian male waist is 96.2cm and women’s measures up at 85.8cm, while the healthy range is 94cm or less for men and 80cm or less for women.
So why is gut health in the spotlight right now and how will balancing it keep us slim?
Well, it gets to the core of the issue, so to speak.
The University of Groningen recently released a study indicating that our lifestyle – everything we eat and drink plays a significant role on our gut health. The study, which analysed the guts of over 165,000 Netherlands residents found that a greater diversity of bacteria in the gut microbiome lead to greater overall health and wellness.
It also found that each thing we consume has a different impact on our microbiome – so yoghurt, coffee and wine lovers were found to have greater diversity in the microbiome than high calorie consumers or whole milk drinkers.
And what does a diverse microbiome mean? You got it – a healthy weight.
While research is in its infancy, a new Massachusetts General Hospital trial is looking into whether it is possible to transplant the gut bacteria (taken via faeces) of an ultra healthy, slim person into that of an obese person to effectively work as a weight loss intervention.
Despite the unsavoury methodology (we warned you), a small test has already been conducted on humans and has so far demonstrated that altering gut bacteria can affect human metabolism – and therefore weight.
Dr Jane Muir, head of Translational Nutrition Science in the Department of Gastroenterology at Monash University believes while research on gut health is still in its infancy (with little studies yet to be done on humans) the current findings do indicate the importance a healthy microbiome can have on our health.
“While we are still unsure how the microbiome can treat health problems it’s thought the intestinal microbiota plays an important role in a wide range of processes (including nutritional, metabolic, immunological) and so any major changes or stresses on the microbiotia can then impact health and disease (including obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel diseases).”
Dr Claudia Lee, a general practitioner and gut health specialist at Sydney Integrated Medicine, also believes the current animal research shows significant merit.
“In one study, researchers populated mice with gut bacteria collected from sets of twins who were either obese or thin. The rodents were fed exactly the same amount and type of food for the duration of the trial and at the end, those with the gut bacteria from obese individuals were significantly heavier and had more body fat than those mice receiving the gut bacteria from the thin twin.”
“The gut microbiome is responsible for altering the way we store fat, how we respond to hormones that make us feel full or hungry, and how our body balances blood sugar levels that stimulate sugar cravings – all of which affect our weight,” says Lee.
And let’s not forget the gritty stuff.
“Studies on human stool samples have found that thin people have a much greater diversity – or garden – of bacteria species compared to obese people. And it’s been concluded that the difference may be due to the fact that diets high in sugar and fat, and low in fibre, are more likely to encourage certain bacteria at the expense of others.”
As for the weight loss impact, one study of humans published in the British Journal of Nutrition did find that when women supplemented with the probiotic ‘Lactobacillus rhamnosus’ as part of a weight-loss program they lost twice as much weight in a six month period – with better maintenance of this weight loss – than those who didn’t.”
And interestingly, Lee notes the study found it didn’t have the same effect on men, so the gut bacteria replacement clearly can’t be seen as a ‘magic bullet’ solution for everyone.
So, this begs the question, do we start turning to fecal transplants?
Muir says while there is good scientific evidence that fecal transplants can also help treat other nasty gut infections that some antibiotics cannot, the verdict isn’t yet out on whether it’s a cure all solution.
“I believe we’re still a long way from knowing the answer – we don’t know the long-term implications of fecal transplants or what makes healthy or unhealthy gut bacteria but it is thought that factors in your environment including – diet, drugs (especially antibiotics), diseases and illness can play a role. And diet is a major influence – and one we can control!”
Hence the domination now on news feeds and cookbook cover lines.
But, according to Lee, gut health is no new thing.
“It may seem a new concept but Hippocrates, the famous ancient Greek philosopher declared long ago that ‘all disease begins in the gut.’”
So why is it gaining attention again now? Lee believes the reason for the millennial revival is attributed to the latest research connecting it to the forefront of all health.
“We are better able to define and study the gut microbiome now, and have found aside from digesting and processing food, it’s also vital for immunity, hormone regulation, mood, weight and overall wellbeing.”
And with weight being well, a ‘weighty’ subject, it might be time we all get a little mindful of our microbiome.
“While the buzzword is definitely out there, just like the constellation of stars – it still remains a mystery. As a doctor, I feel that instead of focusing on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ bacteria, the important message should be about getting the balance right,” says Lee.
So in order to manage our microbiome, we need to know it a little better.
According to Lee, the easiest way to think of it is like the soil in a garden – “it’s the stuff that influences the quality of the plants produced. Similarly the gut microbiome is the trillions of micro organisms including bacteria, fungus and protozoa that coexist in our tummies and bowel and are responsible for: how we respond to hormones that make us feel full or hungry, altering the way we store fat and influencing how we balance blood sugar levels that can stimulate sugar cravings. Basically, all the things that affect whether our weight goes up or down.”
Ready to balance your gut flora? Read on for tips from Dr Claudia Lee and Sydney’s leading gut nutritionist Lee Holmes of Supercharged and author of the ‘Heal your Gut’ cookbook and program.
1. Fuel up on fibre and ferments
“Eat a range of fruit and vegetables, legumes, grains – they are naturally high in fibre – and also yogurt and fermented foods which allow good bacteria to thrive,” says Lee. But, Holmes warns, go easy. “Be aware that fermented foods should be implemented slowly and in moderation. For some people with histamine intolerance, fermented foods can be detrimental and cause symptoms, so listen to your body.”
2. Minimise medicines
“Where possible, reduce unnecessary antibiotic use, so for example, don’t take them for a cold caused by virus where antibiotics are not required,” says Lee. Holmes also says the contraceptive pill is something that can cause gut related symptoms too – as well as the toxins in beauty products.
3. Tune into your body
“The easiest way to assess gut balance is to consider any bowel symptoms you may be experiencing during or after eating, such as – reflux, bloating, wind, abdominal cramping, odd bowel motions or bad breath (as the gastrointestinal tract starts in the gut). Secondary symptoms are then energy, mood, skin changes, or getting sick all the time,” says Lee.
4. Go natural
Instead of splashing out on expensive products you’re not sure will actually help, try a naturopathic ingredient. Holmes recommends the following for varying ailments:
- Turmeric for inflammation
- Aloe vera for soothing the lining of the gut
- Slippery elm for soothing and healing the gut lining and assisting in waste transportation
- Fennel and ginger for digestion
5. Cut the crap
“Reduce processed foods, especially those high in fat, sugar and additives – these are more likely to destroy the healthy gut bacteria and feed the bad ones,” says Lee.
6. See a specialist
“A local doctor can perform specific breath, stool or blood tests to look for bacteria or parasites that may be causing symptoms. Or alternatively, a gastroenterologist (a doctors that specialises in this area) can deal with more severe or alarming symptoms like – inflammatory disorders, motility, obstructive disorders and cancers.
6. Try a transplant
As previously mentioned, ‘Fecal Microbiota’ transplants are now being offered as a procedure to potentially treat gut infections, digestive diseases or assist weight loss. “Gastroenterologists will collect fecal matter from a donor, mix it with saline, strain it then give it to a patient by colonoscopy, endoscopy, enemas or tablet,” says Lee.
Alternatively if that’s a bit much, a naturopath, nutritionist, dietitian or doctor focusing on functional or integrative medicine may offer an alternative pathway to optimal gut health.
7. Steer clear of unhealthy habits
“Day to day factors can lead to a unbalanced gut microbiome, so illness, multiple doses of antibiotics, diets high in processed sugary and fatty foods, stress and lack of sleep can play a part,” says Lee.
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