Beyond Probiotics: Can Your Microbiome Be Hacked?

Trillions of tiny creatures call your body home, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and more. This is not always bad news, and in fact, our health depends on the presence of large numbers of microbes. This leads to the obvious question: can we improve our health by hacking our microbiome?

What is the microbiome and why you can change it

Germs are everywhere on your body. Some cover the skin (yes, even after you wash your hands). Others colonize the inside of your mouth (some build up plaque and others are harmless or beneficial). Your large intestine is the largest repository of germs – by some estimates, it costs about three pounds. If you could count the number of individual bacterial cells, you would find that, although small, there are many more than our own human cells.

Germs cause armpit stench, and vitamin K promotes blood clotting . Every day, scientists find germs in new places and new connections to health. We used to think that babies collect their first microbes at birth, but now there is evidence that mothers’ bodies deliver bacteria to the baby before birth , and later add gut microbes to breast milk to kick-start their baby’s own microbiome.

So what exactly is the microbiome? Our ordinary DNA is called our genome (which means “all genes”), so when scientists began to analyze all the DNA of the microbes that live in us and on us, they called it the microbiome (which means “all genes of microbes”). But for many non-scientists, the word has moved away from the DNA-based definition, because the word biome means ecosystem, and what we have inside is in a sense a microsystem.

We have known that our bodies are home to microbes, at least since Anthony van Leeuwenhoek examined scrapings from his teeth in his newly invented microscope in 1683 . But our understanding of these microbes has skyrocketed in recent years: instead of looking at them through microscopes and growing cultures in a laboratory (which is difficult or impossible for many species), scientists can launch a series of bacteria through the DNA sequencing process and detect almost everything in a sample. … This idea is at the heart of the Human Microbiome Project , which aims to characterize the creatures that live on us and explore how changes in microbial communities are related to health and disease.

Some of the details are fuzzy, but we know that our microbiome is related to our health. The immune system does not develop properly without signals from skin microbes. Germs can affect obesity and are linked to various inflammatory and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis . Obviously, our health is related to the health of our tiny passengers, but scientists still ca n’t figure out what a “healthy” microbiome should look like.

Pass the probiotics … wait, not so fast

Changing our microbiome sounds like a great idea, but our tools are very limited at the moment. The wonders of the microbiome are celebrated from the rooftops by traders of probiotics ( foods and pills containing live bacteria), but these probiotics include only a tiny handful of species that don’t normally live in our gut.

To figure out what’s real and what’s hype, I spoke with microbiologistJonathan Eisen , who believes germs are the key to human health , but is not afraid to call traders and overly impatient reporters with the Microbiome Resale award .

“Life hacking of the microbiome has tremendous potential,” he says, but our understanding of how to do it is in its infancy. We know, for example, that humans whose gut ecosystems are awash with the deadly Clostridium difficile can be cured with germs from a healthy donor – the now famous faecal transplant . We know probioticscan prevent a terrible infection called NEC that kills premature babies. Moreover, the results are mostly inconclusive . In some trials, probiotics protect against diarrhea, but in others they do not.

Eisen explains why the effects of probiotics are usually very minor. Think of your gut as an ecosystem:

You have, say, a thousand species in the colon. And then you introduce one clone – not even one species, but one clone, usually of the same species or five different species – injecting it into a system where you have no idea if they have the right features to succeed. system. And they have to compete with thousands of other taxa , all of which have been adapted, have lived in this system for a while, and have at least some ability to hang out, grow, compete and kill other creatures or whatever. do. And so it’s no surprise in this context that most probiotic pills you take don’t have germs in them for long. And it is quite obvious that this is true. They just don’t hang out.

This is great for probiotic manufacturers because it means you have to keep taking probiotics in order to keep dosing your system. It’s not all that important for long-term health benefits … There is very little evidence of benefits for healthy people.

Why don’t they settle? “Look where they come from. Many of the strains used in probiotics are not human gut dwellers packaged as probiotics. They are isolated from yoghurt. ” Eisen contrasts this with the natural probiotics that newborns get in breast milk: they are packed with special carbohydrates that feed these microbes and components of the immune system, including antibodies, which seem to help train the baby’s immune system to carry germs, but not others. He says it is “unlikely that a simple pill-taking model without context will work very well.”

What can actually be effective?

Since microbes were likely at work behind the scenes long before we knew they existed, Eisen notes that “hacking” the microbiome at an initial level may not require any understanding of the microbiome at all. After all, food provides nutrients for your microbes, and food can also carry microbes directly into the intestines .

A smarter way to start by changing your diet is than introducing germs. You are probably better off going to your dietitian right now and having a routine inflammation test [or other tests that affect your health]. I think ten years from now this kind of connection will emerge to add the microbiome to this arena.

By the time our food gets to the microbes in the colon, starch, sugar, fats and proteins are already digested and absorbed. The result is a small amount of nutrients that are sometimes called “prebiotics”. They include many carbohydrates that our own enzymes cannot digest, including soluble fiber, resistant starch, and some oligosaccharides. It is likely that many of the beneficial effects of fiber and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may be related to the effects of such a diet on gut microbes . This is still mostly speculation.

“There are many areas where you can try and do something that is probably good for you, it’s just unclear if it’s going to be good for you,” says Eisen. This includes taking probiotics and eating foods such as fermented foods (kefir, pickles, and kimchi, to name a few). Feeding germs can be delicious.

Your ticket to understanding your microbiome (someday)

A better understanding of the microbiome is fast approaching, and Eisen is confident that new opportunities will open up. Here are some of his suggestions:

There is no doubt that people will use drugs with the help of germs. There are companies talking about big cosmetic changes. There will be new smells, new functions. I’ve heard people talk about the poop glow in the dark! … This is a really interesting area because you don’t need to change a person’s genes, right if you want to give them a new function. You can just give them a pill with a microbe that has a new function. You may need to take this pill every day if germs don’t stay nearby, but you can still add a living, bioproductive organism to your system that could last longer or perform different actions than regular medications. I think that all this is yet to come.

In the meantime, there is one more thing you can do to try to understand your own, individual microbiome and how it changes in different areas of your life: you can sequence it.

Eisen immediately notes that he is on the scientific council of one of these companies, uBiome , but there are others, for example, the American Gut Project . (He also mentioned Genome 2 , but they don’t seem to have comparable services right now.) For a donation of $ 89 or $ 99, respectively, you can send a swab of your feces (or another microbial community of your choice, like your skin. mouth or vagina) and get a rundown of what types of germs are calling you home. You can then compare your results with those of other people, or take samples at different points in time. “For example, if someone is taking antibiotics, if [they are] interested in life hacks, they’d be damn better to take a microbiome sample before they do it, because [their microbiome] can completely deteriorate,” says Eisen. You can also track how your microbes change if you go vegetarian, get pregnant, or any other important change in your life.

So even though our tools to hack into our microbiome are currently limited, you can still eat well, take probiotics if you want, and learn about your trillions of passengers while you dream of a glorious future when you can. make your poop glow in the dark.

Photos: saluletas , alice-photo , 3Dalia , brownpau , F Delventhal and k rupp .

Vitals is a new blog from Lifehacker dedicated to health and fitness. Follow us on Twitter here .


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