I was invited again this year to attend the Alltech Symposia to learn about new and emerging technologies in agriculture and food production. Alltech is a global food and Ag company that produces feed ingredients and supplements for all parts of agriculture including cattle, swine, fisheries, equine and crops. They view agriculture as a whole food system, and are very interested in tackling global health issues with solutions applied to food and crops.
One of the most interesting sessions I attended covered the Microbiome, led by Dr. Rowan Power, an Alltech scientist.
He said that we used to say, “You are what you eat.”
But now, he says, “You really are what 100 trillion and one of you eat.”
Each person plays host to about 100 trillion bacteria (that doesn’t even count fungi and viruses). These bacteria live on and in your body, including on your skin, in your nose, mouth and eyes, in your lungs, and, of course, in your digestive tract. Over 1,000 species of bacteria live in your intestine, mostly your lower intestine. Yummy.
A few more facts about your microbiome:
- Bacterial cells out number human cells 10 to 1
- The microbiome comprises 1 to 3% of your body mass (that’s 2 to 6 lbs on a 200 lbs person)
- The total microbiome may consist of 10,000 species
- The bacteria in our gut allow us to digest foods
- The number and variation of the bacteria will vary from person to person
Microbes and weight loss
Doesn’t everyone have that one friend who can just think about going on a diet and lose 5 pounds? Scientists like Dr. Power are finding that the way our bodies react to changes in what we eat is largely dependent on the bacteria in our gut. What we eat is not as important as what the bacteria in our gut do with the food we eat.
In one study, scientists removed the gut bacteria from some lean mice and introduced it to mice that were completely germ free. They did the same with bacteria from obese mice. The mice that were given bacteria from the lean mice became lean, and those given the obese mice bacteria became obese. So, the bacteria in your gut may have an impact on how lean or obese you become.
Dr. Power also said that when scientists looked at the bacteria in lean people, there was more variation in the bacteria in their guts than in obese people. People with more variation in their diets had more variable bacteria to digest their food and were leaner. (Makes me second guess my oh-so-consistent breakfast routine.)
Microbes and feelings
You know how some foods make you feel so good? Most neurotransmitters (the chemicals that send signals within and from our brain) are derived from nutritional factors. So, the way our microbiome breaks down food can actually affect how good we feel. Get me some happy bacteria!
How do we change our microbiome?
The microbiome will change based on what you feed it. If you eat a diet of fat and sugars, your microbiome will adjust to digest fat and sugar. If you eat more leafy greens and vegetables, the bacteria will change to digest those. So, the more variety in your diet, the more variety in your microbiome.
Medicines like antibiotics can also change your microbiome. Everyone has been a little sick to their stomach after taking antibiotics (or you’ve had a sick child that has developed a nasty diaper rash after being on antibiotics). Even the bacteria on your skin can be affected by antibiotics. This is why doctors suggest that you eat yogurt after you’ve had to take antibiotics. Yogurt is full of healthy bacteria and you need to re-populate your gut with healthy bacteria after you’ve had antibiotics.
Scientists are figuring out new ways to alter the microbiome in humans and animals all the time. There are foods and supplements that can encourage the growth of good bacteria and discourage the growth of bad bacteria. Of course, we all know the benefits of eating yogurt and drinking acidophilus milk. Cattle farmers have been using feed additives called ionophores to optimize the microbiome in their stomachs and help cattle digest feed more efficiently for years.
Dr. Power said that pretty soon, human health efforts will encompass care for the human as well as care for the microorganisms that live on and within the human. We may be able to treat chronic diseases in humans by treating and altering the bacteria that live within them.
Personally, I am excited about this emerging science in microbiology. I think it will be neat to see the medicine and treatments for diseases like Krohns and diabetes that might emerge from our new understanding of the microbiome.