I was first introduced to the term the ‘gut microbiome’ by Tim Spector, a Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College London. Spector specialises in twin studies, genetics, epigenetics, the microbiome and diet and I was fortunate to attend a talk he hosted nearly five years ago at KCL. He is a best-selling author, and is pioneering some of the largest scientific studies relating to the microbiome; he is definitely worth following if you are keen to learn more.
In summary, the microbiome is a range of microbes that live throughout the body, including the stomach, skin, mouth and vagina. When focusing on the stomach, it is commonly referred to as gut bacteria. More specifically, Spector describes the microbiome as:
- 100 trillion bacteria and archaea (similar to bacteria in function but different structurally i.e. they are not impacted by antibiotics)
- 500 trillion viruses
- Fungi and protists
He describes the microbiome as the main driver of our immune system and control of digestion. A healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome i.e. it is made up of as large a range of different microbes as possible.
So what can I gain from a having a healthy microbiome?
When the microbiome was first discovered, many scientists believed that it was root cause of all disease. As research has progressed over time, this statement has become a bit more controversial, but most researchers agree that a healthy microbiome is a fantastic place to start for good health. The benefits of looking after your gut bacteria include:
- Healthier bowel movements
- Lower inflammation levels, reducing the risk of many modern-day diseases (see below)
- Maintaining a stable weight
- Improved skin
- Improved energy levels
- Ageing better
- Being more resilient to general colds and illnesses
Science has now proven that having a poor microbiome i.e. a lack of microbial diversity, makes somebody more likely to suffer from:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Arterial stiffness, related to high blood pressure and hypertension
- Rheumatoid arthiritis
It is expected that this list will increase as time goes on and more studies are conducted.
So how can I improve my microbiome?
- By promoting diversity! Research has shown that the defining factor between a healthy and unhealthy microbiome is the number of different plants eaten per week – that includes fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices.
- Eat more foods that are high in the fibre inulin, these include vegetables like artichokes, onions, garlics & leeks
- Consume more probiotics and prebiotics as found in kefir, yoghurt and kombucha
- Eat more polyphenols found in peanuts, high-quality olive oil, dark chocolate and turmeric
- Fasting – avoid late night snacks and try to go 12-14 hours without consuming any food to promote bacterial clearance
How can I avoid worsening my microbiome?
- Avoid antibiotics as much as possible, including those found in cheap meat. Or if antibiotics are required, take a high-quality probiotic at the same time
- Stay away from processed foods
- Avoid emulsifiers, commonly found in shop-bought sauces
- Avoid preservatives
- Avoid artificial sweeteners
So improving my microbiome will make my IBS better?
IBS can have many origins, but the general medical consensus is that the microbiome is a primary cause in most cases of IBS. So yes, it is widely accepted that if your microbiome is more balanced and has less ‘bad bacteria’, your bowel movements will improve. Fortunately, this is also one of the easiest changes to make and requires no medication. For some tips on improving your microbial diversity – keep an eye out for my next blog post.
Does the future look more positive for IBS treatments?
Thankfully, yes! There are multiple on-going studies looking at how best to personalise dietary advice for an individual, using the microbiome as the primary data source. Although still in its infancy, Zoe is one of the initiatives looking at doing so. This will mean that instead of prescribing drugs and testing for allergies, GP’s will be able to send off for tests to identify the foods that best suit a person’s biology, resulting in less inflammation and improving IBS symptoms. However, as these technologies are still in the relatively early stages of development, it may be a little while until the NHS has access and funding to such methods. That said, it’s nice to know the future is looking bright!