Some people have a perfect memory, live to 100, never get sick, and eat ice cream without gaining weight.
New research suggests that could all boil down to their gut health.
Increasingly, scientists are finding our microbiome – which accounts for 57 percent of cells in our body – affects everything from sleeping patterns to brain health.
But that doesn’t mean the global population would have a better memory if we all switched to salads and probiotics: some people’s guts are built to thrive off ice cream, while others should stick to plain rice or kale.
‘This is changing our view of who we are as humans,’ Dr Rob Knight, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference on Friday.
University of California researchers have shown gut affects sleep and memory
Unveiling the latest research, Dr Knight and other leading researchers in the field said it’s becoming clear there is no end to the laundry list of factors that affect gut bacteria – and how those changes affect who we are.
Everyone has their own unique make-up of bacteria which is affected by a tumult of factors, including how they were born (via a c-section or vaginal birth) and whether they took antibiotics as a child for an ear infection or conjunctivitis, for example.
As adults, it is affected by what we eat, what we drink, how often we have sex, who we have sex with, where we live, and the air we breathe.
THE FUTURE OF GUT HEALTH: SMART TOILETS, MIRROR SENSORS, AND AN APP TO SCAN YOUR POOP
Dr Rob Knight, co-founder of the American Gut Project, said his team is working on many ‘science fiction’ ideas to revolutionize how we understand our personal gut health.
He tabled three ideas which he is exploring to work towards:
- A ‘smart toilet’ that examines your fecal matter and offers a live report of ‘how you’re doing’
- A ‘smart mirror’ that gives an analysis of your breath when you breathe on it, much like the cystic fibrosis breath tests available
- An app synced with your smart toilet that could scan grocery items while you’re shopping, and can tell you what you should buy to eat
One of the most compelling new details is the way bacteria affects the mind in more ways than we ever realized – in particular, our memory.
‘We are finding strong evidence of associations between the brain and microbiome,’ Janet Jansson, director of biological science at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state, said.
Dr Jansson’s lab has broken ground in this field by showing that they could improve a germ-free mouse’s memory by injecting them with a certain bacteria species called Lactobacillus.
Analyzing the doctored mice compared with the metabolite composition of control mice, they could see that the ones experiencing better memory had also experienced metabolic changes caused by the Lactobacillus.
This finding is not easy to translate into practical methods for memory-boosting since each person’s bacteria make-up is so unique.
Even our own sleeping patterns affect our microbiome – and vice versa, explained Dr Knight, co-founder of the American Gut Project which is analyzing donated fecal samples from 10,000 volunteers.
His analysis of the citizen data compiled broke down which factors are the most important.
The most important factor was unequivocally the variety of vegetables we eat, rather than sticking to romaine every lunchtime.
Next is sleep, having sex and our weight – which all affect different people to varying degrees.
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut way to find out if you are an ice cream and sex person or not.
The only test available to find out what your microbiome needs is only available in Israel.
But blindly loading up on probiotics and cutting out major food groups in the meantime – because they are tipped as ‘healthy’ – is an ill-advised approach to improving gut health.
The concept of taking ‘probiotics’ in general is like taking ‘a lot of drugs’ for an illness, then encouraging your friends to take ‘a lot of drugs’ for any illness, he said.
When it comes to food, he points to a study by the Weizmann Institute in Israel found some people experienced more of a blood sugar surge after eating white bread or rice than they did eating ice cream.
Dr Knight says that experiment on 800 people, published in 2016, was a major advance in gut research showing those who prescribe to popular diets may not be meeting their gut’s individualized needs.
But he insists we are making strides in the field, especially since starting the American Gut Project, in understanding that medicating our gut is pivotal to taking control of all kinds of diseases.
‘Your gut is not Vegas: what happens in your gut does not stay in your gut,’ he quips.