Gut bacteria play several roles in host metabolism and overall health. They produce certain vitamins (K, folate, thiamine, other B vitamins, and tryptophan) and communicate with the immune system in addition to a plethora of other roles including influence on mood and weight regulation.
According to researchers, “The genes of bacteria in the gut are 150 times larger than that in the human genome, and the mass of bacteria in the body can reach 1.5 kg, or ∼2% of the weight of an average 75-kg person. Studies in germ-free animals have shown that shifts in the composition of the gut microbiome may play an important role in disease development, specifically obesity and diabetes.”
Several factors (genetics, mode of delivery at birth, method of infant feeding, use of medications such as antibiotics, and diet) can alter the composition of the gut bacteria. The composition is not static and changes throughout the lifespan. When an imbalance or disruption occurs, numerous health problems may arise. In addition to contributing to these chronic illnesses, microbiome health may also influence a person’s susceptibility to infectious diseases and response to certain drugs.
Research indicates that monotonous and restrictive diets (often low fiber) associated with modern life are responsible for the depletion of microbiome diversity and beneficial metabolites such as short chain fatty acids (SCFA). SFCAs not only provide energy for the host, they also help regulate the immune system and gut-brain signaling. Adequate fiber has been shown to nourish gut microbes contributing to improved digestion and overall gut health. Some high fiber foods that may be considered include but are not limited to: chia seeds, almonds, flaxseeds, popcorn, oats, dark chocolate, and chick peas. Polyphenols are micronutrients found in plant-based foods that may also support better digestion and weight management by influencing microbiome composition and function.
A mouse model of obesity comparing lean and obese mice found that these opposing physiological states may be associated with the gut microbiota and the way it influences the utilization and storage of calories from the diet. According to researchers, “both microbial and host contributions must be considered in order to achieve a fuller understanding of the factors that regulate energy balance.” This means the old saying of “you are what you eat” must consider complex factors beyond simply calorie counting. A 2012 mouse study added that weight gain is not just a caloric overload, and the relationship between the diet, gut microbes and the immune response must be evaluated. Obesity is considered to be an inflammatory state associated with chronic low-grade inflammation due to unfavorable changes in the gut microbiota composition. A twin study compared the gut bacteria of seventy-seven pairs of twins where one was obese and the other was either lean or just overweight. They found that the microbiota was different between twins; the bacterial diversity of the obese twins was reduced compared to the non-obese twins.
Eating patterns should be evaluated through a lens of social, cultural, and commercial factors. However, given the rise in the obesity epidemic over the past several decades, adipose tissue has been recognized as an active endocrine organ influencing the disease process of obesity. Together the gut and adipose tissue generate a long list of peripheral hormonal signals that contribute to appetite regulation and food digestion. If there is a deviation in these signals, decreased satiety after meals may affect weight. Manipulation of the gut microbiota has been suggested as a therapeutic strategy to combat obesity and related health issues. Since metabolic responses to specific foods are related to gut microbiota composition, researchers believe that effective weight loss requires an appropriate match between diet and gut microbiota.
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