In a previous post we explored the fascinating world of the microbiome – the symbiotic organisms populating the human gut which provide manifold digestive and immunological benefits. To be optimally healthy, we must make friends with our gut flora, stop beating them down with unnecessary antibiotic drugs and cleaning agents, and give these critters an ideal environment with which to flourish.
The science behind the microbiome is exploding with revelations. For example, we now realize that the door swings both ways – not only can we change our microbiome, our microbiome can change us. One of the most interesting areas of research along these lines studies microbes found in the guts of obese animals and how those differ from the microbes in thin ones.
One study examining this effect found that transplanting bacteria from the guts of obese mice caused significant weight gain when placed in the guts of lean mice. This particular family of microbes associated with obesity bloomed in the mice that were fed a Western-style diet that predictably causes weight gain in mice. This is an important point – the diet was changed first and the microbes associated with being an overweight mouse were able to gain a strong foothold in their guts.
However, if you take these same microbes and plant them in a lean mouse, these mice gained weight as compared to a control group of mice that received a microbe transplant from other lean mice. Here is where the door swings in the opposite direction. Not only can we eat in a way which causes a change in the microbiome, the microbiome itself changes in response to our diet in a way which may make it easier to gain weight.
Put another way, if a mouse eats food that causes it to gain weight, its gut will soon be populated with microbes that thrive on these same foods. Once firmly established, those gut microbes exert an effect on the body which itself appears to cause weight gain, as evidenced by the mice that received the microbes, gained weight, but never ate those foods. It is easy to see how a vicious cycle might ensue. It is important to note that the microbes associated with weight gain diminished once the offensive foods were removed from their diet. As the diet changed, so did the gut flora.
This gives us an interesting window into what might be happening in the human gut. I have long held the suspicion that the microbes in our guts may be exerting a substantial pressure on our bodies and minds far beyond what we currently realize. It is almost as if pathogenic and parasitic strains of microbes attempt to modulate our conscious control in order that we may slavishly eat large amounts of foods they need for survival. If we were to discover that these microbes released chemical mediators that were absorbed into the bloodstream or alter neurotransmitter production in the gut, I would not be surprised. The implications of such a finding would be vast, changing the entire landscape of addiction treatment. Anyone troubled by food addiction may one day come to realize their gut bugs had been calling the shots all along.
Although speculative, these findings prompt us to consider the health of the microbiome in addition to other strategies targeting weight loss. After all, the livestock industry has long observed that the addition of antibiotics in animal feed reliably results in weight gain. If we were prescribed a course of antibiotics, taking the time to remodel gut flora with prebiotic fibers, probiotic-rich foods, and herbal remedies which cleanse the gut, will have a global effect on our metabolism that improves weight loss outcomes.
For more information, read the fascinating article Are Happy Gut Bacteria Key to Weight Loss?